Four updates in one post (warning: some updates my be really short)

I just finished reading Andy Weir's The Martian and, on the off chance you're in to hard science fiction and you haven't read it yet, I suggest you pick it up. It's breezy and funny and it moves along briskly and there are tons and tons of math! Don't worry, though, because Weir does a great job of keeping it at a level that I found easy to follow. I've no clue if the movie will be any good or not, but the book's a keeper.

Now isn't this interesting? New Orleans is making a bid to host Worldcon 2018? There are worse places to visit, and there are worse reasons for visiting a place. 2018 is far enough away I can't even think about making concrete plans, but wouldn't it be fun? Speaking of New Orleans, this arrived in the mail yesterday.  It's beautiful, it's raw, and it's special. 

I'm home alone this weekend. You'd think I'd be out doing wild, bachelor things and so forth. Well, you might think that if you didn't know me. I've done a lot of work (because hey, that's what you do on labor day weekend, right?) and some reading and a little, but not nearly enough, cleaning. The only bachelor thing I've done is restrict my meals to "things I can prepare easily and clean up afterwards easily." That name would look terrible on a label, wouldn't it? Someone smarter than me will probably come up with something better...

That last flash fiction story was a bear. It was a two-part prompt: The previous week, we created a character. Then, last week, we wrote a story using someone else's character. I selected a fellow who didn't say much other than a few prophetic in brief spasms. Then I got to work on the story. I had a setting, I had other characters moving around the main character, I had  a basic plot outline and even had it halfway finished when I noticed that I hadn't really done anything with the character himself. Uh oh. This was the point at which I noticed that it's tough to write essentially mute characters. In theory, I would have recognized this at the outset, but I'd somehow missed out on this vital realization. 

Four hours, a complete shift in POV, and an kind of a cop-out of an ending, I had it done. Not great, but a terrific exercise and that's what these prompts are all about. It did, however, lead me to ask myself a question. Let me put on my toga and you can pretend I'm speaking in the voice of some Greek philosopher:

"Is it better to tell a great story adequately, or to tell an adequate story skillfully?"

Ok, I'll take the toga off now.* Ideally, of course, you want to tell a great story skillfully. For the sake of practice, I feel as though I've been spending too much time and effort trying to come up with a great story and not working as hard at telling it well.  So, for the next prompt, my goal is to pay more attention to the technical side of things, the mechanics of it, even if that means I'm not particularly "inspired" by the story. Does that make sense? 

* Don't flinch; I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt underneath it.

Answering a question and thinking out loud

A friend of mine recently posed a series of interesting questions on his blog and, rather than hijack his space, I want to take a look at the big one in some detail (spoiler alert: don't expect any definitive answers):

"Am I really asking what makes great literature great and, if so, what makes great literature great?"

What makes literature great? That's a heck of a question. It's not a new one by any means, but that does't mean it's not worth reconsidering from time to time. My knee-jerk reaction is that you know it when you see it, but that's a cop-out. How do you know it? What about it makes you recognize greatness in literature?

Thinking about this has led me to wander over to Wikipedia, where I ran across the idea of "literary theory." I'll grant that my understanding of literary theory is shallow beyond measurement, but I'm pretty sure that it's not an approach I want to take when addressing this question. 

Instead, I'll start with looking at a list of great literature. For no compelling reason other than the fact that I need to start somewhere, let's look at The 100 Best Novels Written in English, as per Robert McCrum. At this point, there is a pause in my writing as I've gone off to look over the list and then look over it again. Thanks to the magic of text, you won't actually experience this pause, but I wanted you to know that it exists. 

Ok, now that I've gone over the list, I'm not certain that it gets me any closer to my answer. I've read a reasonable number of the books on the list, but most of them I read decades ago. I hope that they'd make more of an impression on me now because, honestly, while all of them may qualify as Literature-with-a-capital-"L", they didn't leave much of a mark on me. That's good, though. For something to qualify as great literature, at least using my proto-definition, it needs to leave a mark on the reader.

Fortunately, McCrum himself addresses the question as to what make literature great in a related article:

"Calvino’s definition – 'a classic is a book that has never finished what it wants to say' – is probably the sweetest, followed by Pound’s identification of 'a certain eternal and irresponsible freshness'...Thereafter, the issue becomes subjective. Classics, for some, are books we know we should have read, but have not. For others, classics are simply the book we have read obsessively, many times over, and can quote from."

A little romantic, and I'm not sure it's useful if one's looking for a systematic approach to answer the question, but still, it's not bad...until he continues with:

"The ordinary reader instinctively knows what he or she believes to be a classic."

And now we're right back where we started. 

I've tried to make a list of the books which I've read and consider great, and then list out the defining traits of those books. I won't both sharing that because it was a fruitless approach. Have you ever tried to decided if you should stay with a romantic partner by listing out their good and bad traits and then adding them up? This exercise worked every bit as well, which is to say, not at all. If I were a literary theorist, I'd suggest that the greatness of literature is an emergent property, but I'm not, so I won't.

So, after all of this, I'm just going to take a stab at what establishes the greatness of literature in my opinion. The book in question is great literature if...

* The book sticks with me. If I can't remember reading it, it may be literature, but it wasn't great to me.

* The book changes the way I look at the world or broadens my perspective in some way. I learn something of value from it.

* I enjoy reading the book. This may seem like an extremely lowbrow way of looking for greatness, but it's hard for me to consider a book great literature if it's an outright chore to read, no matter how innovative the structure or clever the prose or intricate the plot.

* The book is novel. Yes, I did that on purpose, but I mean it. If it seems new and fresh, I'm more likely to regard it as "great."

* Finally, the book needs to end well. The ending seldom saves a poor novel, but if the ending isn't up to the quality of the rest of the novel, or if the it doesn't "fit," it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

These generalization are how I recognize greatness in literature...at least, that's how I do now. The whole thing is subject to changes. I may someday read something that doesn't tick any of these boxes and I still think it's great, which will mean I'll have to reevaluate the whole thing. Which is fine. I expect defining greatness in literature to be a work-in-progress for as long as I have the wits to consider it.

Now, what good is a list like this? For me, it's a target. When I write, these are the impressions I'd like to leave on the reader: That the work is memorable, that the reader learns something from it, that they enjoy it, and that it offers something different than other things they've read. 

Of course, I'd like to stick the landing as well, My personal example of an ideal ending is Terry Pratchett's "Small Gods." I doubt I'll ever land as gracefully as Sir Terry did with that one, but if I come close, I'll be more than satisfied.


Image from lydiaoutloud.com because it is the perfect image for this post, don't you think?

Image from lydiaoutloud.com because it is the perfect image for this post, don't you think?



Post-mortem on that last story

I remember writing a paper for my high school creative writing class which should have been the best thing I wrote all year. I don't even remember the specific subject, but I recall being extremely familiar with the material and instantly had an outline of what I wanted to write spring into my head.

Only..this assignment had a particular format we were required to use and I had far more information than would fit. Not that it stopped me from trying. I wrote and wrote and wrote until my paper was more than twice the length my teacher had requested. Most of the time, when I overshot like that, my grade improved. It was, after all, a creative writing course and if I wrote more than the minimum requirement, that tended to be a good thing. 

That was not the case with this particular paper. I remember even being vaguely aware that what I was writing was kind of lousy while I was writing it, but I just had so much to say that I couldn't stop myself. In the end, it was probably the worst thing I wrote during my senior year and, while I received a passing grade, it was a richly deserved "C." 

This is a long way of saying that I'm not especially happy with Texoma by Torchlight. The assignment was to mash up two randomly-selected pop culture properties and I wound up with "Snow Crash" and "American Gods." I know and love both of these books and feel like I have a pretty good handle on the core ideas contained within them. So, I had an unusually good handle on what the assignment required, but my end product isn't as good as it should have been. Where did I go wrong?

1) The gimmick of trying to write in third person present didn't suit the story. It might have been a good ploy for one of the two story lines, but it was confusing and awkward the way I wrote it. So, while it was a good exercise, I'd change it if this were work product.

2) The story leans way too much on dialog. I can hear the conversations in my head, and I know who is saying what. I am not reading my own work for the first time, and while there's some nice dialog in there, there's too much of it and it's confusing. 

3) This is a constant problem of mine: Stop trying to shoehorn a 10,000 word idea into a 2,000 word story. I'm very pleased with the ideas behind the story. However, the execution was a compromise between what was asked in the assignment and what the ideas really needed to be fleshed out properly. The story may have had an ideal length, but 3,500 words most definitely was not it.

4) Make sure the idea actually involves a story. I love writers like Warren Ellis and Larry Niven who can take one exceedingly weird idea and spin a story out of it. Simply having a good idea isn't enough. Again, I am very pleased with the way I combined the ideas of "Snow Crash" and "American Gods," but I'm not sure I actually wound up with a story.

5) Finally, this is supposed to be flash fiction. It might be a good idea to treat it as such rather than agonize over it all week. Writing quickly and instinctively rather than working it all out in advance is an opportunity to work on a different skill set and it's one I'm going to need in a few months.

I know these assignments (and really, there's not assignments, but it helps me to think of them that way) are really just suggestions to get my creative juices pumping. I'm not required to follow the rules and I don't mind going way over my word count if the story requires it. I'm writing these for myself as practice, and if the story requires more space, then I'm going to give it more space. What I don't want to do, though, is to stretch or truncate something to make it fit. That's the biggest problem I see with "Texoma by Torchlight."  Let's see if I can do better, or at least avoid this particular pitfalls, next time.


Struggling with the "flash" part of "flash fiction"

This week's prompt seems straight forward enough: Write a story based on a mashup of two randomly-selected pop culture properties. This one ought to be in my wheelhouse, but I'm having trouble getting a foothold on my story. Part of the problem is that, when I look at the list, I can see where some of these mashups already exist in one form or the other. 'The Terminator' meets 'Toy Story?' Let's see, the essence of 'The Terminator' is that its a cautionary tale of machines rising up to destroy their creator. 'Toy Story,' of course, concerns it self with childhood playthings come to life. So, throw the two together and you get...'Child's Play,' right?

The two I got with my first roll of the dice are 'Snow Crash' and 'American Gods.' At least I'm familiar with the source material in both cases. It does feel kind of like smashing them together might result in something very close to 'Neuromancer.' So, I feel like I need to avoid what I think is the most obvious direction for the story. 

Which ain't necessarily a bad thing.

It is, however, a difficult thing and one which is not coming to me easily. Two glasses of cheap but very drinkable red wine and Genesis' 'Selling England by the Pound' didn't help at all.  Great album, wrong sound track for this story. 

My hope, as you may have sussed out for yourself, was that by writing this in my journal, I'd nudge the story into existence. I don't think my cunning plan is going to work. I don't think this one will be nudged. Excuse me while I go get my sledge...


Seriously? Someone went to the trouble to make a Lego version of the costume Peter wore when singing "Dancing With A Moonlit Knight?" Wow...

Seriously? Someone went to the trouble to make a Lego version of the costume Peter wore when singing "Dancing With A Moonlit Knight?" Wow...

The Future, Not-Terribly-Distant

A few of quick note since I'm awake:

1) My wife and I have booked a vacation next month. It's a little on the short side, but I expect Denver is lovely in September. We're both the sort of travelers who find making too many plans for a holiday more stressful than making too few, so we are a good fit in this regard. She's never been to Denver; I've only passed through, so this will be a new thing for the both of us.

2) I had an Idea yesterday which means I have a starting place for this coming November. Where I wind up may be some place very different, but at least I have place from which to begin. Of course, now I have one hell of a lot of research to do...

3) In the future, I will attempt to refrain from posting after midnight unless I'm drunk enough to be funny when I do it. 



You all know Plato's famous Euthyphro dilemma, but it's worth re-printing here:

"Is the pious loved by the Gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the Gods?"

Plato's always a good place to start when discussing the touchy subject of personal heroes, and the Euthyphro is how I like to frame the discussion. I know people, friends and family, who don't have any heroes because these are people, hey, we're talking about, and people are flawed, people let you down, people have grey areas and are, in short, not worthy of being put on the Hero pedestal.

That's a point of view I can understand, but it's not one I subscribe to. For me, a person doesn't have to be perfect or even exceptionally virtuous to be a hero of mine. My heroes have one or more traits I find exceptional and admirable, or they've done exceptional and admirable things. In a more Platonic formulation, I might say "These ideals are heroic, and Bob is my hero because he does them," as opposed to "Bob is my hero, so the things he does are heroic." 

Anyway, this is a long way of getting to saying that Neil Gaiman is a personal hero of mine. It's not because he writes terrific stories, stories which inspire me and I find myself re-reading over and over. What makes him a hero, to me, is this: He has the extremely rare ability to speak about ideas the sort of ideas which tend to provoke strong, emotional responses in a way that is calm, thoughtful, and definitive in a way that defuses rather than escalates. Here's Neil Gaiman discussing "political correctness" a couple of years ago:

I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase “In these days of political correctness…” talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, “That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.”

Which made me oddly happy. I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase “politically correct” wherever we could with “treating other people with respect”, and it made me smile. 

You should try it. It’s peculiarly enlightening.

I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking “Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!”

In a sense, it's the opposite of trolling. I admire that and recognize that it's a lot more difficult than it looks. I try to make my point and still be above the fray the way Mr. Gaiman can be, but...well, I'm a bit of a work in progress in that respect.

So, count me in the pro-hero column. I admire John Steinbeck and Warren Ellis and Sarah Vowell and Neil deGrasse Tyson and Greg Graffin and many others. I admire them for what they do and say. They've all given me something to aspire to be. I think that's a fine thing so long as I don't stick them up on a pedestal and say that everything they do is heroic just because they're the ones doing it. 


Pictured: Not heroes of mine, but funny.

Pictured: Not heroes of mine, but funny.

Why I Write

Note: This is in response to Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge from last Friday. This week's challenge has nothing to do with fiction; instead, he's challenged folks to write about why they write. That felt more bloggish than storyish, which is why I'm putting this in the "journal" column. Now, on with business: 

"Why do you write?"

I'm an oblique fellow. I like to sidle up to things rather than address them head-on, but this was a direct question, so I'm going to give you an uncharacteristically direct answer: The only thing that I consider meaningful is doing things to make other people's live better and this is the one creative tool I have in the toolbox which gives me any hope of doing so.

I've been working for American corporations for over thirty years now and I have long since made peace with the fact that I'm not going to find meaning or purpose in my work. I get to help people out, and that's the part of the gig I enjoy; the rest is bullshit.  My job is mechanically important to the business, but if my position disappeared from all companies tomorrow, the world would be no poorer for it.  I don't hate my job, but it is a job and it provides me a decent living and some, but not nearly enough, time away from work to do the things that are important to me.

I'm in awe of people who can make things. I've tried my hand at more creative pursuits that I can describe and stick to the thousand word limit for this challenge. I've tried my hand at both piano and guitar. I've done a little painting. I have some marvelous old Soviet-era film cameras which I'll dust off and lug out into the field from time to time I am a dilettante in both the worst and the best senses of the word. I've pursued these things right up to the point where they became difficult, up until the point I noticed that people who were not jut better than me, but better than I would ever be, were playing in cover bands on Wednesday nights at tiny bars. 

It's different with writing. I can read writers who are so much better than me that I cant even really judge how much better they are, and instead of discouraging me, they inspire me. Reading enriches my life* and I can't talk about writing without talking about reading any more than you can exhale without inhaling first. Books, like any good art, contain a hint of magic in that they can change your, can literally alter your perceptions, without you being quite aware of how they managed the trick.

Have you ever read John Steinbeck's East of Eden? If not, you probably ought to do something about that. The first time I read it, I didn't sleep for two days after finishing it because it messed me up so badly.  Steinbeck destroyed every excuse I'd every used for being less that decent to other people, and that was more self-awareness than I was prepared to deal with at the time. Somehow, Steinbeck managed to smack me like that and still write an entertaining story, which seems like one hell of a stunt.

Once you've read it, the next thing you need to do is pick up Journal of a Novel. There were, of course, no blogs or laptops or anything like that in Steinbeck's day. Instead, he wrote his novels in longhand on the front side of large sheets of loose paper. On the backs of those sheets, he kept a journal, and the journal is almost as amazing as the novel itself. The journal was his warm-up for the day's writing. He'd write about personal things, about the weather, or the his family, or somesuch. He'd also write about what he was planning for the novel and that's where it gets really interesting. He'd write about what he was trying to accomplish during the day's writing, and how he would accomplish it from a technical standpoint ('This next section is extremely action-packed, so I need to remember to use short sentences, just subject-verb, to accentuate this) and I remain impressed by how aware of his craft his was. His books read as though they  "just come naturally," but the truth is that he knew exactly what he was doing and how to accomplish it.

On a broader not, he saw East of Eden as his legacy. It was the sum total of everything he knew, passed down in the form of fiction, to help his children deal with the obstacles life would throw at them. It was his road map for future generations, written in hope that they wouldn't make the same mistakes he had. 

If you want to understand why I write, you have to understand how incredibly powerful Steinbeck's goals for East of Eden were. I'm under no illusion that I'm "destined" to write a novel as great as even his lesser works. I'm going to work as hard as I can, as well as I can, and improve as much as I can, and I hope that something I write will help someone or someones get through something they might not have navigated successfully otherwise. I want to do this and, at the same time, write entertaining and maybe even fun stories.

This is why it's important to me. This is why it has meaning. This is why I keep practicing, even when it gets difficult. This is why I write. Thanks for asking the question, by the way. It's not a bad thing to have to remind yourself why you're doing it from time to time.


P.S. I also aspire to write something as goddamn beautiful as this: Oliver Sacks: My Periodic Table. The world is going to be measurably less awesome without Sacks in it. He's a brilliant scientist who also has the ability to write in a way that somehow conveys the awe-inspiring contents of his mind in a deeply touching fashion. Oh, and he was really, really hot too.

* Fun fact: I don't really dream when I'm not reading. When I am reading regularly, I dream vividly every night. I'm unsure as to why, but it's a remarkably consistent.

Like an aspirin in your advent calendar


The last Flash Fiction Challenge should have been a cakewalk.  It turns out that cakewalks are more challenging than I thought.

1) Generate random title: "Sustainable Greediness"

2) Giggle, because it's a marvelous juxtaposition. Imagine doing something based on an Ayn Rand story.

3) Immediately discard any Ayn Rand related ideas as cheap and not as much fun as they initially seemed.

4) Get an idea stuck in your head linking the title to the game "Monopoly."

5) Spend a day trying to get that connection out of your head. Fail.

6) Start writing. Create a potentially fantastic setting involving a hidden Atlantic island, trained Monopoly-playing animals,  and a cast of professors and students at a secret university.

6a) Research the setting in great detail, including triangulating the latitude and longitude of the university and fabricating the secret history of Monopoly.

7) Two drafts later, fourteen hundred words into a one thousand word story, realize that all you've done is create the setting and introducing the characters.  Recognize that there's no actual story in anything you've written.

8) Save as draft. Hope that you can salvage something.

9) Spend another day trying to get the Monopoly thing out of your mind. Fail again.

10) Start anew, simplifying the setting and the characters but retaining the basic "idea."

11) Write it. 

12) Realize that it's seventeen hundred words and it's not going to get any shorter and it's probably still not properly a story.

13) Link it anyway, because it's stubborn and the way to get the blasted thing out of my head is to hit the "publish" button.

That is to say, this one wasn't fun, but it was a good workout. I'm suspicious of any story so good it just writes itself. I'm not thrilled with the result, but it was good for me to get through it and I think there are some salvageable bits in there. 

As a wise man once said, "They can't all be winners, kid."


When Life Gives You Lemons In The Form of Randomly-Generated Titles

I remember Larry Niven writing a little piece about how working within an arbitrary restriction can be a handy creative tool. He and Jerry Pournelle decided to use a plastic model space ship, the AMT Leif Erikson, as the basis for the INSS MacArthur in The Mote in God's Eye. It was a neat exercise: Start with the plastic model and then justify the functionality of the various design choices of the model. Why were the engines arranged thusly? Why were their aerodynamic features? Stuff like that.

I mention this as a way of getting myself psyched for a writing prompt which feels less than promising at first glace. We've  been directed to a random title generator which and told to only roll the metaphorical dice one time. Six possible titles were generated, and while they are each plenty plausible, none of them jumped off the screen, grabbed me by the shoulders, and shook me vigorously, as if to say "Me pick me I am the one can you imagine the adventures we'll have!" 


But, one of them stuck in my skull and I've decided to go with it. It's both awkward and obvious at the same time: "Wife of the Woman."  Not exactly in my wheelhouse, is it? But...I think, I think I have a direction I can take it.  Otherwise, I may have to try to do something with "Prince of Slave," a prospect which should provide ample motivation to make literally any other title work.

So, tomorrow, off to work. Oh, and mental note to myself: Try to keep it around a thousand words this time, ok?


The car drove great, but it wouldn't take me anywhere

Last night, I tried something a little different. I cleared my head, cleared the space around me, and  decided to just start working on a story cold. Just sit down, pick a title, and write.

Two hours later, I'd knocked out several pages of work that I feel was pretty darned well written...and the story was complete garbage. I felt like I was on a roll in terms of telling it, but the story itself? It just didn't work. It's bad enough that I'm not sure there's anything I can salvage. It's sitting in the drafts folder, just daring me to delete it. 

This being for Chuck Wendig's flash fiction challenge this week, the title was the name of randomly selected song, and it was a good one, although maybe a little too leading. There was really only one place the story could go, and it was too obvious right from the beginning. (Can you tell I'm working through this as we speak?) Of the top of my head, I can think of two rescue strategies. I can either figure out a way to twist it, to make it take a unexpected fork, or I can go all Treasure of the Sierra Madre on it and make it about foreboding.

Or maybe just roll the ol' random number generator again and see what it gives me. Like I said, I liked everything about the story but the story (which is a very significant "but"). I'd still deem the operation a success. Pity about the patient, though...

Holiday Horror

Our writing homework this week is to write a holiday-themed horror story. I've been struggling with this one for a week and was about to write a half-hearted piece about the abomination that is the Elf of the Shelf. In a weird little coincidence, teacher decided to write on the same subject this morning. Normally, I would be deterred, but in this case, I'll try to turn adversity into opportunity. Or, it could just be that I didn't care for the story I was working on in the first place.

So, as I prepare to write the completely-different story, I'd like to pass along this little tidbit: I really don't care for the holidays. I don't care for the food, I don't care for the forced travel, I don't care for the gifts (giving or getting), and I really, really, really don't like the obligatory everything. My time off is precious to me and having all manner of social requirements heaped on me wears me out. I enjoy seeing a few people, and even my family, but I don't get any joy out of an obligation being discharged. "Relief?" Yes. A lot of relief, but it isn't worth the stress that I get prior to it.

So, yeah, "bah humbug" to me. I get it. I don't begrudge anyone their holiday merriment. Just please be kind if my smile seems a bit forced and I excuse myself from the party early.

Avoiding work by writing about not avoiding work

Man, I'd forgotten how much writing on a schedule, as opposed to "whenever I feel like it" can take it out of a guy. In a previous life writing for magazines, the work was extremely spiky: Write twenty things in a week, then nothing for a month. Oddly enough, I find that easier than grinding out x number of words a day or week. 

There's always a risk turning anything you enjoy into a job, or even treating it like one. My experience is that instead of loving your jobs (which is, presumably, the desired outcome), you wind up resenting or even hating the thing you enjoyed. Turning something you like to do into something you have to do isn't always a good move.

That said, sometimes it's just a matter of self-discipline, isn't it? I have no patience for people who say that working in any kind of steady fashion stifles their creativity. I say this as a person who's said that from time to time but has come to recognize that it's kind of a bullshit excuse. One of the key tricks to Getting Things Done is to do them when you don't feel like it, and doing what you have to do to pay the bills that allow you to do the thing, or things, you love.

Which is to say, time to close the blog and get back to work...