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On Progress and Strife, 8/29/13

Another day, another off-color, rusty, vertiginous dollar.

I will avoid uncorking a rant, but Day Job is not going well. Not “about to be fired” not going well, or even “in trouble” not going well, but, I am definitely not happy with where things are at in terms of my ability to grasp the subject matter I am tackling. I started today with the plan to try to be better, healthier, more focused, and so far, that’s holding, but being more focused is just showing me that there are real, serious problems with this material that I’m not sure I’m qualified to fix. (For those playing along at home, I work with engineering texts, and do not have an engineering degree. Not being able to comprehend some concepts is expected, and at times considered a selling point.)

On that subject, I’m going to start adding exercise counts to my word counts. I used to walk to and from the train every weekday, plus take 30 minutes of walk on the Wii Fit. I liked that. Doing it now is a bit challenging due to home being a great deal more than a 20 minute walk away; but I have my eye on spending this overtime pay on a bike, which will really help, especially since there’s this awesome suburban maze next to our house I’ve never gotten to explore before. In the meantime, I’m setting, mmm, 20 crunches and 8 sets of 5 reps each of some light weight exercises as a daily goal. I’m also going to try to put in 30 minutes of walking either on the Wii Fit or out in the world. That last is flexible for now, but I want to be doing *something* every day again. Then once I have the bike there can be biking. Sonya and I have also discussed tennis as a possible thing for ourselves to do (as there is a tennis court within a reasonable walking distance of our house). I want this bag of bones to be…a bit less like a bag, damn it.

Speaking of improvements – word counts. I’m now having no trouble breaching 300 words on non-DWM projects, which is a big breakthrough for me. Some projects I just struggle with and can’t seem to eke out more than 100 words on in a day before my brain hurts and I need to walk away and drink some water and feel like I just finished a particularly intense wrestling match. Part of me wants to say that this is a good barometer for when a project is the right project for me; but another part of me says writers write even when writing sucks. Even when it really does feel like a job. Otherwise you’re a hobbyist. So maybe next I’ll try for a project that taxes me a bit. Well…when the projects at work are less taxing.

In other news, I am simply blown away by the mad, gibbering genius that is Joe Hill. I am three volumes deep in his comic book series, Locke & Key, and cannot recommended it enough. I read Heart-Shaped Box a while back and thought it was highly enjoyable. And now I’m reading his short story collection, 20th Century Ghost, and that is blowing me away. For the first time in a while now, I find myself on the train, startled, looking up from my book, worrying that I missed my stop. Pick this guy up. Don’t put this guy down.

That’s all the blag that’s fit to blog this week, I’m afraid. This weekend promises to be hectic, but also enjoyable. I hope yours is more of the latter and less of the former.

On Privilege

Yep, it’s that time again.

Disclaimer: This is one of my rare, but wordy, political posts. There are views that I do not consider to be “political” because I consider them to be rights, and I will never apologize for them. You have been warned.

Some of you may be thinking, “but we’ve had our privilege discussion, haven’t we?” Some of you may be wondering why yet another white man feels the need to decry racism. Some of you may just be wondering what the heck I’m talking about. Well, in order, the responses to your thoughts are: the discussion doesn’t end until privilege is a thing of the past; this particular white man is keenly aware that Florida just rendered two obviously racist verdicts; and well, this is what I’m talking about.

I had someone I was going to link to for a definition of privilege, but apparently they are getting all kinds of sass for their efforts, so I won’t attempt to defer to their authority. So here’s what privilege means when we talk about “privilege” in the context of feminist, anti-racist, or otherwise socially progressive contexts. “Privilege” refers to the advantages a person has in a variety of interpersonal relationships, especially those that involve just treatment under the law, their treatment in social situations, and their access to and experiences with money, job opportunities, and other services. The most classic example is male privilege – the simple fact that in every culture I can think of on this planet, men have advantages women simply don’t, from tending to get paid more for the same job, to not having to size up every potential date as a potential rapist, to not being discouraged on a cultural level from speaking out, acting out, or doing whatever they want with their lives.

Some of you are saying that men have problems, too. I’ll get to that in just two shakes.

Because here’s the next thing about privilege: there is a decent chance you have some.

Are you male? See my above points. Are you white? You are less likely to go to prison. Do you make more than $60 a month before any government aid? You are doing better than 1.5 million households across America. Are you straight? You can get married in every state in the Union, as opposed to less than twenty.

These are facts, or as close to facts as anything ever gets. Race, income, and a whole variety of other factors play into how easy or hard your life is. It’s a sad fact, but it’s there.

Now, I have already heard the counterargument that is no doubt boiling up. “Men rarely get the kids in divorce settlements” or “women can’t be drafted” are popular ones when discussing gender privilege. The idea in all cases it to suggest that bad things happen to the (supposedly, they say) privileged as well as the unprivileged. Alright. That’s all well and good. But a) often those bad things are the result of the strife caused to the underprivileged or a consequence of the social constructs in place that grant you privilege (e.g., the idea that men are “breadwinners” and won’t have time to raise kids), and b) no-one is saying nothing bad ever happens to you. That is not what it means to say you have privilege. What it means is that we are asking you to understand that your experiences are not the only possible set of experiences.

It’s not just about race or gender or sexual orientation, though those things are big, obvious areas of inequality that we need to fix. It’s about asking you to see that you have privilege, and moreover, asking that you see that people around you do not have the privileges you do. It is about asking you not to be blind to privilege.

Here’s an example of what I mean. About a year ago, I was talking with a friend about a game we play regularly that has a lot of players, and a verbal component that is a major factor in your ability to participate. With me so far? Someone, a smallish person with a soft voice, complained about the propensity of players to yell as loud as they can, because then the soft-voiced person cannot be heard. The response of the friend? “So? Yell louder.”

Do you see the problem there? Short of a megaphone, the small, soft-voiced person is not going to be able to yell as loud as, say, me, who is large and has a very deep voice (and often has to be asked to speak more quietly when just conversing). If yelling is not necessary to the game, why are we justifying yelling? Doesn’t that seem ridiculous?

OK. You’re with me. Great. So then, if someone says “I am at a higher risk of being murdered,” do you say “So? Move out of the United States.”? If someone says “It is harder for me to get a well-paying job and will tend to be paid less than a different type of person,” do you say “So? Work harder.”? You begin to see the problem with the argument.

Now, the next step: You’ve admitted, OK, some people have it worse than others. I might be a person who has it better. But if I am…so what? What do I do with that knowledge? Are you trying to make me feel guilty?

No. God, no. What I am trying to make you do is acknowledge it exists, and try to change it where you can. You have privilege; your voice has value that the underprivileged might not be able to manage. So use it for good. Vote for things that make the world more equal and against things that do the opposite. Challenge the “jokingly” racist and sexist behavior of your friends. Accept that our culture has a problematic relationship with gender, violence, religion, sexuality, and basically everything else, and accept that we are all getting screwed by that and it needs to change. Admit that media you enjoy consuming, that the subculture you are a part of, is problematic, and listen to the arguments of those who do. Accept rather than reject, defend rather than attack. Be a force for good, positive change.

There’s one last argument I have to address here, now. The “why are we still talking about this?” people. The people who are tired of feminist buzzwords, or B.S. about race in our post-racial world, or who think they can’t do anything about rape statistics. We are still talking about this because it is still a problem. Because people still get raped. Because two people can have completely different opportunities available to them due to nothing more than the color of their skin. Because equal rights – and the right to live a happy, fulfilling life is definitely a damn right – is still an idea, not a reality; and until that changes, I will keep bugging everybody about privilege, if only so I know who I have no interest in associating with.

Privilege exists. And I won’t shut up until it doesn’t.

On Power

This is a hybrid question/rant. Both halves of this hybrid are entirely legitimate; I really do want answers to the question, and I really am annoyed by the thing I’m asking about. If you want to skip my thoughts and just answer, feel free; and if you want to just read me spewing hate-words into the webbertubes, that’s fine, too.

The question, about which I shall rant hereafter: Why does it seem like so many urban fantasy stories insist on main characters with earth-shaking levels of power, interacting with (or being) characters who occupy unique and/or crucial positions within the fantasy subculture or the fabric of reality, fighting battles with world-shattering stakes hanging in the balance?

I understand that it is a good idea (if not mandatory) that there be something unique about your protagonist, either in terms of their nature or in terms of their situation; if they are an un-special person to whom nothing special happens, then there is likely no conflict and therefore no story. However, it seems like urban fantasy writers in particular are copying a narrative template I last saw in the heady Dark Age of comic books: using high power levels and Big Important Words and high-end mythological beings in place of actual diligence and detail, and leaning on weird MacGuffins and strange loopholes to get the main character from one cosmologically important plot point to the next.

Let’s establish some terms, as I used to do in my graduate courses. What do I mean by “high power level,” in a genre where supernatural powers are par for the course? I’m glad you asked, Assumed Reader of Essays! “High power level” refers here to characters (or objects utilized by characters) with powers that are constantly useful, completely reliable, and capable of solving a wide variety of tasks both magical and mundane. Classic “high power” abilities include the ability to easily, even off-handedly, kill the average threats present in the fiction’s universe; resistance to physical and/or magical harm bordering on invincibility; unaided, high-speed travel through space or, God forbid, time;  the ability to raise the dead or undo apparently permanent damage; and the capacity for other significant, permanent alterations to reality. Bonus points if the powers in question can be activated with a second or less of warning (e.g., teleporting across the world with a snap of your fingers) or if they come with some weakness or limitation that does not appear to actually limit their use in any way (e.g., the power causes the user great pain, but not so great that they are reluctant to use it to solve any but the most trivial problems). In short, an “average” power level allows an urban fantasy character some amount of shortcuts around mundane problems; a “high” power level allows an urban fantasy character to ignore mundane problems and barely struggle with all but the most fantastic ones.

I also said some flippant things about Big Important Words, and that should be explained here as well. Fantasy, since the dawn of language, has loved to give characters, places, and things Names with Capital Letters, titles that convey mystery or importance. The Lady of the Lake, the City of Brass, the One Ring. Etc. Urban fantasy follows suit, giving us things like King Rat, the Black Friars, or the Room of Thirteen Doors. Both fantasy and its younger cousin also love made-up words for things: the various demon races in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Sandman Slim come to mind, or kything (admittedly based on an old Scottish word) in the A Wrinkle in Time series. Urban fantasy has a predilection fantasy doesn’t always share, however, for prescribing near- (or beyond-) deific uniqueness to characters, even beyond the whole Chosen One thing that has been popular for quite some time now (like all of it): I’m thinking more of Sandman Slim’s parentage in his novels, or the cosmogonic status of the Endless in The Sandman, or the strange propensity for “edgy” characters in urban fantasy to wind up meeting Jack the Ripper.

But wait, the Assumed Reader says; don’t many works you, Tyler, love feature some of these very things? The Doctor, with his Sontarans and Daleks and his ever-more-potent sonic screwdriver? The aforementioned Dream, he of the alternate dimension where he is god-king and the ability to appear almost anywhere he wants? Mike Carey’s Lucifer? Well…yes. They do have this stuff. But the way they handle it…well…

OK, let me give you an example of what I mean. A few years back, I read an urban fantasy novel that took place in an Otherworld version of a famous big city, where it’s always the middle of the night and all the monsters and miscreants like to hang out. Alright, so far so good; decent urban fantasy setting. Early on in the book, the main character figures out that someone is trying to kill him for investigating the things he is investigating; assassins from multiple timelines keep suddenly materializing in front of him. Sure, alright; again, a bit weird even for the genre, but go big or go home, I guess. As such, he hires three bodyguards. One I have forgotten entirely, except for the fact he is unkillable; the other is a pair of lovers, a mortal and a succubus, who are damned by definition but are so deeply in love that the good emotion keeps them out of Hell and damnation keeps them out of Heaven, so they, too, are immortal. Uh? The very first place they go to investigate anything, they get attacked by a bunch of wizards in three-piece suits, and the main character just hits the deck while the immortal bodyguards graphically murder all the minor antagonists (I hesitate to call them “bad guys”). Over the course of the book, the main character hangs out with a bartender who is occasionally possessed by an impressively Satanic rendition of Merlin, fights someone wielding a gun that speaks the Word of God backwards to erase its targets from existence, and discovers he is the son of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who has been unleashed into our world now and who becomes the antagonist for the entire series.

So what, you might say? So this: At no point does the main character resolve any conflict himself. Every conflict is presented in the same format: impossibly horrible, powerful, inexorable thing appears; main character tells us how screwed he is; some sort of deux ex machina, occasionally a literal one, steps up and fixes it, perhaps after the main character points out some mystical loophole in the problem that they can exploit, perhaps just via brute force and ignorance. And the characters are so flat they could get a job as a cardboard standee, with each of them having exactly as much personality as is lent to them by the archetype they embody and not a whit more. Even the main character, who is our first-person narrator to boot, is just a Central Casting noir detective with a quasi-tragic, quasi-mystical spin on his backstory that you just know will result in a pity party being thrown in the later books.

It’s the latter point that bothers me, and the point on which Doctor Who and The Sandman deviate from the cavalcade of sins I am mentioning here. These stories have shallow characterization and cliche plots, spiced up only by making everyone a godlike special snowflake and/or making sure the gore quotient is somewhere in the stratosphere. The stakes keep getting bigger, the amount of worlds and realities threatened larger, the consequences ever darker and dire; but these are tautological consequences, consequences that are only dire because we keep being told they’re dire, because the easiest way to make something look like a threat is to have it threaten everything. You don’t have to tell people how serious a threat to the world is, and you don’t have to work to make people worried about it.

And that is why this behavior among urban fantasy writers bothers me. Because it’s lazy. By going big, by going enormous and epic and scary, the writer can skimp on the harder parts of writing – character depth, relatable conflicts, emotionally moving…well…emotions. (Prose fail.) You can pave over your deficiencies by just having something else weird or gory or explosive happen and never have to go back to making your main character anything more than a cynical detective or a bewildered everyman; Chandler’s Law writ large. It’s the literary equivalent of a heavy metal garage band that covers up its lack of musical training by detonating explosives onstage, a loud distraction that will hit your primal side and draw attention away from the noisy deficiencies of the rest of the product.

The thing is, I can get behind that; not every single book needs to move me deeply. But I feel like urban fantasy in particular gets the lion’s share of this, and I don’t quite understand why, especially when there are plenty of examples of high-power characters in high-power settings who nevertheless are complex, conflicted, and interesting – the aforementioned Dream and the Doctor. I’m not quite certain why it is that urban fantasy falls victim to this so thoroughly (and I’ll admit, it’s even possible I’m wrong, and this is a problem across a wide swath of genres); is it just the easy access to godlike characters? What is it about urban fantasy that encourages fulfillment of a college-campus stereotype about speculative fiction? Is this actually an issue for anyone besides me? Am I just not OK with letting magic be…er…magical?

I don’t know, and it bothers me a lot. It’s to the point that I’m almost scared to write an action sequence, lest I be written off as yet more popcorn in a world overflowing with kernels. Luckily, and here is my conclusion, this gives me purpose: to recognize this apparent pitfall, and to avoid it; to keep the power levels of my settings low; to keep my characters deep; and to always remember that even if the rest of the world disagrees with me, the fact that I want to do those things in my stories is reason enough to do it.

On Progress, 5/30/12

Three reports in and we’re already to a bad place…

What I’m working on: Done with Mirrors directly, “Five Seconds Longer” and the Unnamed Anthology Invite more indirectly (read: brainstorming but no actual butt-in-chair work yet).

Progress: We’re…still currently in the revision of Chapter 11.  See “Hurdles,” below.

Hurdles: If last week’s hurdle was the battle between me and my self-doubt, this week’s is the battle between me and my social life. This past weekend Sonya and I were hosts for CottageCon, a little “convention” in our apartment (staged because we could not justify the cost of an actual con – more on that next post). This meant that for four days, we were lucky enough to have amazing friends come over and play amazing games with us. However, this also means that for seven days, I was more focused on cleaning and gathering party supplies than I was with my craft, and that meant a huge dent in my momentum. To top it off, work has been very busy and I’ve been trying to fill in some project potholes I created when I was too stressed out to focus properly, which has been draining my energy and my enthusiasm and leaving me kind of strained for time to write. I need to not let life get in the way of art like that.

Something Gained: I learned how durable my muse can be. Time is proving to be an issue, and energy, and yet I am still making some progress nearly every day (the convention notwithstanding, and until writing is my full-time job I am willing to give myself some breaks). My word counts are slowly hitting 1000 again, here and there, after months of very destructive self-doubt about my capacities and capabilities. In short, the challenge just makes me feel more like I’m capable of handling a challenge. Well, when I am not tempted to hide in a blanket fort with a neat scotch and Mouse Guard.

The Brighter Future: I have a new intro for “Five Seconds Longer” that I’m really excited about. I’m looking forward to finishing another chapter or two of Done with Mirrors and digging back into the guts of that little short story of mine. The Unnamed Anthology Invite also has some ideas rolling around now, and I am ecstatic that some inspiration is still flowing in this overtaxed brain.

And that concludes this week’s Progress Wednesday. Next time: the trials and travails of CottageCon.

On Podcasting, Part the Second, and Why I Did It

Alright, cats and kittens, my guest episode of Your Book is Why Daddy Drinks is now up. I’m linking to their main page instead of the episode itself, because you should check out all of their work; if you are just looking for me, I’m a speaker on Season 1, Episode 5, The Kobold Wizard’s Dildo of Enlightenment +2 (an adventure for 3-6 players levels 2-5).

Now, the question I want to answer here, for you and for myself: why did I do this?

As may be clear from my tweets about bad books I’ve read, I generally try not to publicly lambaste books that I did not like.  This is partially because I really don’t want to be seen as a dick, and this is partially because I do not want that behavior to come back at me.  If someone did not like my work I would rather not find out because they bitched about me on Twitter.  (This is still liable to happen at some stage, but I at least want to be able to act like I don’t deserve it.)  It’s also because, well…see this TED video.  I don’t want to risk quashing someone’s creative spirit, someone’s soul, because I happen to not like the things that they like.  My tastes are my tastes and particular to me, and to force them on others – moreover, to force them on people who are still seeking their creative voice – is wrong.

So why is it OK for me to get online and make fun of someone else’s book?

That’s a question I’ve been wrestling with since yesterday.  I have this gut feeling that it is OK; that my reasons for doing the podcast are beyond just wanting to talk with my friends or some carnivalesque need to feel superior to authors with better street cred than me.  But until I sat down to write this post I wasn’t 100% sure what the actual reasons for that gut feeling were.

And the reasons are these: one, while no-one deserves to have their creative confidence attacked, every artist deserves to have their creative talents improved; and two, I am on a never-ending hunt to understand what, if anything, makes a book objectively bad.

Everyone has a talent ceiling for every task they undertake. I am never going to pitch a baseball as well as Tim Lincecum, or act as well as Robert Downey, Jr.  However, if I’m lucky, I might get to the place where I can write as well as Nick Mamatas (though doubtless my strengths and weaknesses will be different than his).  I want to try to get to my talent ceiling.  I am at a place where I do not need to be taught the basic mechanics of the Spooky Art; I need to be told where my attempts at the Spooky Art fail, so I can try to study hard and not fail in those respects next time I attempt to be Spooky; and I need to be exposed to a wide variety of examples of the Spooky Art, and have a chance to analyze those examples and see what they do right and what they do wrong.  So it makes sense to try to expose myself to bad writing; to see the places other people stumble and try to understand how not to make the same mistake.  In order to avoid the mistakes of bad fiction, I need to know what makes bad fiction bad.

Most of what is “bad” is undoubtedly subjective, and I’ll freely admit that I hate some things that are probably not considered “bad” by the mainstream (my feelings on “show, don’t tell,” for example).  At the same time, there are books that I, and nearly everyone I talk to, agree are bad, but we often seem to flounder when we try to decide what exactly makes them bad.

There are some obvious things, like poor grammar and spelling, that really stick out (I am still haunted by the small press that briefly courted me, only for me to find that they had “corrected” the title of the foreword to “forward”).  But that is obvious, as I said; a mechanical problem, not something higher-level.  Then there are the slightly less obvious, but still fairly universal things: totally untelegraphed plot resolution, total lack of plot resolution, deviating from the world you’ve established, having characters suddenly act out of character without explanation.

But. But but but. What if you do all these things? What if your plot resolution is fine, your characters stay on note, your world is coherent…but your book is still bad?  What is making that book bad?

That’s what I want to understand.

The Kobold Wizard’s Dildo of Enlightenment +2 (an adventure for 3-6 players of levels 2-5) does not do all of these things; and on some level, I think it intends to not do all of these things. The concepts underlying the book make it so that deviation from good literature and good taste are mandatory; and yet, somehow, even knowing parts of it are deliberately bad, that doesn’t stop it from feeling like a bad book to me.  The author has been blurbed by Christopher Moore and Cory Doctorow and seems to be highly regarded, which means that this is that rare and beautiful thing: a bad book by a good author, or possibly, a good book that I am mistaking for bad. I want to crack that open, rip out the guts, grab and clutch and try to understand.  I want to start with something that left me cold but that I could tell should have done much more.  To magnetize my compass using the most powerful magnet I can get my hands on.

That is why I did this podcast.

Now, to be just about this whole thing, I am going to check out some of the author’s other work. I feel like my life will be .01% more complete once I have read a book called Satan Burger.  First, though, I need to read some quality writing. Maybe a little Cormac McCarthy, speaking of great authors whose work might look bad through the wrong eyes.

On How to Do It

No, not that. Jesus.

So, a couple weeks back, I retweeted something said by none other than Nick Mamatas, thus marking something like the second time ever I have retweeted something said by a person whose books I recently read.  The tweet in question was headlined, simply, “Ten Bits of Advice Writers Should Stop Giving Aspiring Writers,” and linked to this blog post from Mr. Mamatas’s spleen-crushingly popular LiveJournal account.  I’ll wait here while you read that.

We good?  Alright.  No doubt, my writing friends disagreed with at least one of his points and agreed with at least one, too.  For me, my favorite points are that “show don’t tell” is oversimplified drek and that you don’t need to write every single day.  But mostly, it left me pondering exactly what advice you should give aspiring writers; or, more to the point and with fewer pretensions to objectivity, what advice I feel like I would give aspiring writers.

Of course, I may not be the greatest authority on the subject, really.  I have not won any awards or garnered more than a handful of anonymous reviews.  I’m not well-known.  I would not consider my success in the writing business to date to be any kind of reasonable rubric for success, beyond the fact that I have done more than most people have in terms of getting my writing published.  However, I have also heard advice that I find to be roundly, resoundingly terrible, the worst of it said with good intentions.  So were you to ask me, and you probably won’t, here’s what I’d tell a newbie about writing.

It’s not going to get you famous. Well, maybe it will.  Maybe you’ll become Stephen King or Robert Jordan or even, if you’re incredibly lucky/cursed, Ernest Hemingway.  But most likely you will make a small-to-modest sum of money at it, supplemented by other work you are good at besides writing, and maybe you’ll get to speak on some panels at some cons.  It’s not that you shouldn’t shoot for the stars, but you need to accept that not earning a Hugo Award or whatever is not “failing”; you’re a success if you get published at all, trust me.  Make perfection of your craft, to the best of your abilities, your goal.

If you want to be a writer, write. Do workshops if that’s your bag, or network at cons, or blog, or whatever; but don’t expect the fact you are marketing yourself to overshadow the fact your craft is unpolished, and don’t think that blogging about writing is a substitute for actually writing.  The people who succeed despite their craft being bad are sometimes people who succeeded because their blog was popular or because they met the right person, but more likely, they got lucky and caught a rising trend that the publishers wanted to get in on.  Write, damn you.

Submit your work. When you think a story is ready for submission to a magazine or a publisher, find the right market for it (I recommend duotrope.com and agentquery.com for magazines and agents, respectively), write a boss cover letter, and send the damn thing out.  Being published posthumously is unlikely to feel anywhere near as good.

You’re going to screw up at some point. At some stage of the game, you will accidentally send an email submission in the wrong format, you will send horror to a fantasy magazine, you will write a really crummy cover letter.  You won’t do all of those things but you’ll do one or two of those things, and that’s life. Learn from it and move on.

If you get rejected, you really do need to consider that you didn’t write a good story. My rubric is this: I’ll send a “final” version of a story out no more than three times.  If all three times result in rejections, I make myself take a serious, critical look at what I might have done wrong.  Sometimes I went for markets that don’t traditionally like the kind of thing I wrote; but more often, I had written crap.

Everyone writes crap. I have a short story on my hard drive that is utter drivel.  I wrote it when I was about 22, and in my hubris at age 25 I paid a professional editor to read it.  The scourging I received at his hands was entirely deserved.  I keep it around to remind me of the simple fact that sometimes, I’m forcing it.  Sometimes, my idea wasn’t that good.  Sometimes, my head just wasn’t in it.  And that’s OK.  Don’t beat yourself up, don’t decide everything you do is crap.  Accept you wrote crap, and move on.  Learn from the experience if you can stand to.

Do not get into it with your critics. If you do get published, you may get a critique of your work published somewhere, and that critique may not be very nice.  Let it go.  (I actually recommend you don’t read your reviews, but that’s a personal taste.)  Do not be Anne Rice and detonate publicly.  Especially not now when blogs are so popular; you are not impressing your readers by flipping out about this stuff.

So there you go; some writing advice from some writer.  Read in good health.

On Passings

My grandfather, Raymond, has passed away after a short, fierce fight with cancer.

I knew him and didn’t know him all at once.  I remember him for the huge farm down in Arkansas; for his kind, laconic Southern patter; for his awkward love for his sons and his grandchildren and his wife and his later girlfriend.  I remember him as a smiling, charmingly addled, older version of my father.  I remember him working hard when he didn’t need to and manning up when no-one would have judged him.  I remember nothing but good things about him and nothing but kindness; it wasn’t until I was nearly thirty that I learned we disagreed about nearly everything.  My deepest connection to him was blood and the complicated sort of love that came with that, but there was a little bit more – his name is my middle name, given directly after him.

My reaction is a cocktail of sadness, regret, relief, and fear.  Sadness because my grandfather is gone from this world; because he was a wonderful man and the world is less for his passing.  Because I can’t help but shoulder some of the sadness my father feels, my mother feels, my sister feels, even if my own emotions are different from their own.  Because I hate death to begin with and to see it strike so close to home is jarring and a reminder of things that leave me with my head bowed and my heart heavy.

Regret because I did not say goodbye the way I wanted to.  Because our last conversation was a strained mess of damaged hearing and bad reception, because the last words I heard from him, hoarse and thick and agonized, were that he appreciated me calling and that he doesn’t get around so good anymore.  Because I eschewed a trip out there in favor of a phone call that ultimately never happened.  Because I suck at saying goodbye.

Relief because my grandfather is finally done suffering.  Because he doesn’t have to fight, for himself or for anyone, and can rest after a long, solid life, a life like the one I believe he wanted.  Because my family can finally start grieving and healing instead of hoping for something that we all knew was beyond hope.  Because the worst of it has passed and now we’re on to the mourning.

Fear because he was so healthy.  Because there was no sign, no hint, no indicator that this would happen to him.  Because death has struck close to me and my terror at the thought of it is greater and more immediate than ever.  I find myself checking every weird little swelling, examining every skin tag or wart, worrying and frowning and fretting that maybe I got whatever genetic snake-eyes besieged him at the end of his life.

I’m a twisted-up mess inside, because all at once I can’t help but feel what I feel, and can’t help feel like I should feel differently.  I’m not as sad as I feel like I should be; the man was old, at the twilight of things already, and in so much pain, that it almost seems like a release, a reward, for him to have been sent off wherever it is our souls go when they shuffle off to the next level.  I worked instead of going out and seeing him, but I did it at his request and the request of my father – the former’s need to be allowed to take this journey alone, the latter’s belief that the trip would do more harm than good.  Still, I can’t help but feel guilty, and also can’t help but wonder if that guilt is really some need for closure gnawing at me.

The bottom line is this: my family is smaller now, and my loved ones are hurting, and I will be there for them if I have what they need.  The world has lost a great man: a dutiful soldier, a hard worker, a kind father, a loving grandfather, husband, boyfriend, and boss.  The world is a little less for his passing, but I think he would agree that he’s finished howing that row; it’s up to someone else to reap the harvest.

So please, Raymond, rest in peace, and I’ll do my best to make my name stand up to yours.  You were one of the good ones, and I will never let anyone say otherwise.

On Being Penultimate

So, here we are, the last working day of 2011.  Another unique day, with unique twists to navigate and unique challenges and opportunities.  Another day to try to do this thing right and that thing better and not do these other things at all.  Another day for writing, and editing, and cooking good food, and long walks in the chilly air with my girlfriend.

If that seemed really navel-gazing, it’s because that’s the kind of mood I’m in. The period between Christmas and the New Year, for me, has always been kind of a weird doldrums, where the air in the office is too warm and the daylight hours are too short and I feel like I’m at the tail-end of a meal and there’s more of the nasty, overcooked side dish left to finish than I realized.  There is a general sense, during this week, of Get On With It; a feeling like the things I want to do won’t be accomplished now, so please let’s get through the final holiday and on into a new year with new promises and new opportunities.

So I’m trying to refocus myself and see my way to treating these days as they are–days, like any other, if perhaps a bit colder than the summer days I seem to remember happening at some point, and therefore days where I can still be getting things done.  This week has been a lot about nesting–my girlfriend is off work, so there’s been a lot of cleaning and tidying at the house, and I got this weird thing called a Christmas bonus, so I picked up a few things from IKEA and a home decor sale at Target to tie the house together.  I’m now somebody who owns a rug, which may actually be the gateway possession for fitted slacks and polo shirts and worrying about my stock portfolio.

One thing I have definitely noticed about myself this week is how much more informed I am.  I’m sitting here, sipping an energy drink I probably shouldn’t be having, and I’ve been steeping in data about the cool things happening in the world around me.  There’s this article, which has me thinking about privilege and exactly how one could legitimately claim a person is “too sensitive.”  There’s this other article, which all at once has me hoping for the future of American education and has me wondering where the author gets off assuming some of what he assumes about the Occupy movement.  (Forbes is on my shit list a little bit lately, so please pardon any cognitive bias there.)  And there’s this video, combining my love of tiny children and my love of hockey (which also serves as a unicorn chaser for any upset the previous two links might have given you).  Earlier this year, I was worried about how out of the loop I felt, but lately it’s seemed like I’ve had much higher quality of information, and much more wherewithal to research that information and make sure I have it right (like, say, during the enormous clusterfuck about the 2012 NDAA).  It’s fascinating, and I don’t think it’s entirely me; I think that information overload has just become either a) more natural or b) easier to navigate.  I try to believe “b” because I’d be really, really sad if it were “a.”

Something else I’ve noticed about myself this week is how much quieter I am.  I used to be a chatterbox, prone to conversation for conversation’s sake; and when I say “for conversation’s sake,” I mean “conversation that is not really about anything, or indeed composed of anything but the phrase ‘So, yeah…’.”  On the way home from Christmas break, my companion actually wound up having to carry conversation for long stretches, to the point where I actually felt bad about it.  I also caught myself ducking out of holiday festivities to just take a minute to myself (usually by hiding in the bathroom about as long as I, personally, estimate a normal person takes in there).  This isn’t to say I don’t love company or conversation, but it is a weird shift in my internal dynamics that has probably been going for a while and I am only just noticing.  It may be a result of shifting toward more time spent writing and editing.  It may also be a result of living with an introvert.

That, I am afraid, is all I have to say today; I somehow doubt you want to hear too much more about it anyway.  For the moment, I am going to shuffle off to reading Cracked articles and maybe poking at some editing, not necessarily in that order.  I will be back on the 31st with my musings on the dying year, and maybe a recipe or two if the New Year’s festivities are exceptionally tasty.  Thanks for reading, world.

Unspeakable

As I sit here, waiting for some rice to cook (I’m being all adult and trying to make breakfast ahead of time instead of going out; please, feel free to comment if you are impressed), I find myself reading creepypasta.  Because that’s a smart thing to do when I’m alone at home in an apartment whose upstairs neighbor makes the floor creak all the time, right?

(Sidenote: For those who do not know, “creepypasta” is horror fiction distributed via the Internet, especially email; root word “copypasta,” from those stories people circulate via email after COPYing and PASTing them.  Dig?  For those who do know, tonight’s helping is “Ben Drowned.”)

The pasta is having the intended effect, and I assure you, the appropriate hairs are standing on end as a result.  But the other thing that’s happening is, I’m sitting here wondering how real people actually would act when confronted with the paranormal?

The accepted reactions are the extremes of fear and fascination.  That certainly makes sense; the supernatural tends to appear in forms that would evoke primal emotions and those are pretty primal, as Lovecraft loves to remind us.  But in this age, with the idea of a person discovering a magical world just beside our own now de rigeur in popular fiction, and with people having access to a great deal more information than they did in the theoretical heyday of this type of story, I wonder if the reaction wouldn’t be quite different.

Fear, certainly, or discomfort; those seem only natural (as it were).  After all, being confronted with the paranormal is at best a disruption of the underpinnings we base our world on (even if we are religiously devout, in most cases; many may believe in God but few expect to see him), and at worst a direct threat to our continued well-being.  Doubt, too, seems likely, again, because the hope is that this is close encounter is a hallucination or some weirdo in a rubber suit and not an actual world-altering experience.  But I wonder, would we freak out that much anymore?  Would we have a moment of panic and then a longer period of logic, of understanding, even of curiosity?  Would we find ourselves trying to figure out what really works to kill werewolves rather than just sitting and flailing and going “Holy shit, werewolves are real!”?  Or would we even not react at first, or perhaps for a good long while, until the crisis is over and we can afford to panic, or until the shock has passed and our brain can actually start correlating its contents?

I ask these questions for the same reason I ask all questions: it’s for a book.  My own theory is that the reaction to witnessing a supernatural event will vary wildly depending on the person and the event, but that the gamut of reactions is wider than it was pre-media saturation and pre-Internet.  Some people will still soil themselves; for others, there’s simply being nonplussed while we run away and find time to panic; and for others, there’s hunting down a forum about how to defend against the supernatural and asking people to help them field ID whatever the hell just swooped out of the night in a flying mop bucket and tried to decapitate them.  It’s moments like these, questions like these, that make me so grateful to be writing in the modern era.

So really–what do you think?

On Shyness and Withdrawal

A part of my rhetoric  as a writer has always been that writing is like a drug.  That I had to do it, every day, or at least most days, or I would get twitchy and start feeling like I was on a countdown to detonation.  But while it’s always been a part of my rhetoric, it has not always been the case that I have put it to the test.

The past couple weeks have been a bit of a hot mess.  Two major projects have been due at work, and on top of that was a torrent of things happening in my social life: friends I haven’t spoken to in some time poking their heads in and requesting face-time, special events that devoured hours in travel and planning, and most importantly, my one-year anniversary with my dear S.  For those who are interested, we celebrated by doing exactly what we did our first weekend together: touring the great restaurants of San Francisco.

The bottom line, as far as blogging is concerned, is that during those weeks, writing was sporadic.  500 words here, 250 words there, a few chops and hacks at the page.  Nothing long-term or satisfying, not really.  I feel, on the one hand, refreshed and relieved to have spent so much time doing so many good things (and, let’s be honest, eating so much good food), but now that the fever-pitch has ebbed a little, I’m feeling the withdrawal: the ache for eight hours of free time, the hunger for a good turn of phrase.  I need to sit down and really write again, and I need to realize that taking such a long break is the exact opposite of good, and not just in a career-goals sense.

The other thing I learned, during this lengthy quasi-hiatus, is that I am apparently embarrassed by talking about my writing.

That’s not to say I’m embarrassed by talking about writing; this blog can attest to that. I love discussing writing in a  theoretical sense: tricks that work or don’t work, the proper amount of brand names to drop, wordplay and its proper placement.  I adore doing in-depth analysis of someone’s work, including my own.

But the words I dread hearing most are: “So, what are you working on?”  Somehow, the minute I hear this question, I immediately fold inward and become intensely aware of exactly how many nerve endings I have.  I answer it, but only in the vaguest terms; and people, being well-meaning and desiring to engage me in conversation, will then ask “Well what’s it about?”  And somehow, that is the hardest question for me to answer.  Not because I don’t know what my stories are about, but because I am just plain not sure what to tell them that won’t either (a) be a spoiler or (b) make me sound like I belong in the smokiest possible corner of the dingiest possible coffeehouse.

“Well, it’s a book about wizards.” (That sounds lame, says my brain.)  “It’s like Raymond Chandler meets Harry Potter.”  (People say that about Harry Dresden, too.)  “It’s about magic as an addiction.”  (So was Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)  “It’s a deconstruction of the whole idea that the magical world beside our own is inherently life-enriching and empowering.”  (Okay, that one’s not so bad…)

All of these are things I’ve said about one of my books, currently still being pitched.  And all of them have been said through jaws that were just about shaking with stress.

I’m currently still processing why this bothers me, because obviously I won’t get too very far in the business side of writing if I can’t make a pitch.  But right now, I think the answer is that my experience of writing is so intensely private.  I know I’m not the only one who finds writing to be a mystical experience, a highly ritualized process that taps into deeper veins of thought than we experience in the everyday.  But I also know that despite all its similarities to others’ writing processes, this particular process is uniquely, completely mine; and to be too detailed about it in conversation feels about as appropriate and welcome as a frank discussion of the details of my sex life.  Somehow any in-depth discussion of what I meant, why I did this or that, etc., just makes me feel strangled and confused and desperate for an exit.  I can hide behind a few other beliefs on this one–my firm feeling that art is subjective, my belief in the privacy of the creative act, and so on–but the bald truth is that it makes me uncomfortable and I don’t know why, nor am I sure I need to.

So for the moment, all I can ask is that those of you who might have read one of my stories, and might see me in person, do your very best to ask whatever questions you might want to ask.  I might be enigmatic about some of my answers, and yes, it might make me uncomfortable; but just like the particulars of my writing, that is my problem, not yours.  And who knows?  Maybe getting uncomfortable for a while is how I’ll figure out what’s going on.