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Every life has its challenges. Most challenges here in the First World are fairly inconsequential. I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from, where I will sleep tonight, or my physical safety when trundling to the bathroom (floor-flopping cuddle cats aside…). There are millions of people in the world whose lives are far more difficult than mine. And yet, I spend my days crippled by my own mind, fighting to get out of bed and then wondering why I bothered.

My depression tends to be worse this time of year. Summers in SoCal are always hard on me. From that great, searing microwave in the sky over the course of the longest days of the year, to temperatures that would make the devil himself wish for air conditioning. The last weeks of August gave us more humidity than usual in addition to eight days straight with temperatures over 100F. Have I mentioned that I don’t do heat? I look out a window too hot to touch only to see parched, dead yards in between pale suburban cookie cutter houses lining asphalt streets blurred by roiling waves of temperature refraction. And people wonder why I don’t want to leave the house.

I miss my Sequoias and my fog and the smell of the ocean. I feel energized and at peace when I’m in that environment. A daily walk in that would go a long way to helping me feel better. But home is 700 miles away, which makes dropping by for a walk a little inconvenient. Yeah, I’ve lived in SoCal over thirty years, and been in this house with my husband for over fifteen, but none of it has ever truly been “home.” Maybe that’s just a manifestation of the bad chemistry in my head, never truly being satisfied with anything, despite there being nothing wrong.

Or maybe I’m not really home…

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIjjh_PRmU8

 

Usually when I get like this I hide in one of my computer games. Nothing like killing zombies to avoid the real problems of the world. But these last few weeks have found me spiraling down the rabbit hole that is YouTube. After the usual fare of stupid human tricks and cute cats doing silly things, I wandered into the music halls of my youth: Queen, The Police, Def Leppard, Phil Collins, David Bowie, Van Halen, and – of course – Journey. These musicians helped sustain me through some of my toughest college years. Years when migraines lasting for days would visit me every two or three weeks, when the medication prescribed for those migraines had annoying side affects but no actual effect, and when my chronic depression was undiagnosed and out of control.

If I was down, I’d listen to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight,” or Queen’s “Who Wants To Live Forever,” over and over and cry my eyes out. If I needed a pick-me-up, it was Van Halen’s “Panama,” or Def Leppard’s “Photograph.” Everything was done according to my mood, which could languish in darkness for days, then change in an instant. Music was my greatest love and my greatest comfort, and those musicians all have special places in my heart, for without them I’m not sure I would have survived. And it gives me great comfort to know that most of them are still out there performing, in one form or another, and still selling out venues. Just goes to show you what it means to have real talent instead of just computerized backing tracks and autotune.

Yeah, there were a lot of bad days, but, ironically enough, those years were also some of my best creatively. I was immersed fully in fields that I loved. First there was music for my undergrad, where I was playing and composing daily, surrounded by talented people who loved what they were doing just as much as me. Then there was graduate work in film, in the heart of the industry – Los Angeles – spending every waking hour in some aspect of production, from writing to directing to editing, and meeting the giants of the field – John Huston, Oliver Stone, Roddy McDowell. Long days, short nights, lots of hard work and frustration and disappointment, and I loved every minute of it.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNIZofPB8ZM

 

Listening to the soundtrack of my life from then has made me finally realize what I’m missing now, what I’ve been missing for nearly thirty years – that creative environment. My fear and insecurities forced a detour into corporate America, where I had all the things that people said would make me happy: regular paycheck, house, car, etc. And yet I wasn’t happy. What I really need to be happy is music and writing. And to get back to doing both on a regular basis, I need immersion. I need interaction with other musicians and writers to keep me on track because otherwise I’m just an amoeba, formless and directionless, swimming along in basic survival mode and not accomplishing much more.

I know I have the ability to be successful. Despite the additional roadblocks put up by my gender and my weight and my grey hair, there’s something inside me that will not give up, no matter how depressed and hopeless I feel. I have great family and friends who are supportive, and a husband who is convinced of my future status as a best selling author. But isn’t that what those people are supposed to do, asks the depression. Aren’t those people closest to you required to love and support you no matter what?

Yeah, depression sucks like that. Always finding a way to bring you down. But even at my worst, I still want to live off my writing. Every time I’ve convinced myself that I should just give up such pipe dreams, that little voice in the dark, cobwebbed corners of my mind protests. Not loudly, not angrily, but just enough to not be ignored. One thing being at AFI taught me was that success would come if you work hard, have the talent, and are given a chance. I just need a little help on that chance thing, for I am not as brave as some may think. Certainly not when it comes to promoting myself and networking. That requires people skills that I am sorely lacking. And a confidence I’m not allowed by that damn demon clouding my brain.

What I need is a mentor. Someone who will be equal parts cheerleader and advocate. Someone who will challenge me, but can also be a friend. A musician or writer already in the business who wants to get some extra karma points by taking on this old rehab project. I’m trying to find ways to make those kinds of connections. AFI has a mentor program, and supports independent writing groups, both of which I’ve signed up for despite the logistics of getting into LA at any given time. I have long been a lapsed member of the musicians union, but maybe it’s time to get those chops back, too. I did manage to rescue the Casio from the spare bedroom a few days ago. Combine that with the MIDI connection to GarageBand on my iPad, and I can doodle some compositions – something I haven’t done in what seems like forever.

I don’t just want to be creative, I NEED to be creative. I MUST write, I MUST play music, or I die, little by little, like I have been these last three decades. And if you’re someone in the business who’s managed to stumble through this blathering, and thinks you might be able to help despite me, I promise to be a good student.

Bonus fan girl swoon if you’re Steve Perry.

 

 

https://vimeo.com/61213949

 

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Most of us, at some point in our lives, have dreamed of working for ourselves. We sit in our office cubicle, or other equally dismal assigned work space, and wonder what it would be like to not have to answer to that asshole of a boss anymore, or sit next to that whining hypochondriac, or deal with the petty power plays of the supply clerk over the next set of copy paper requests. We imagine how nice it would be to set our own schedule as we tool away at our dream job training unicorns to tap dance. Or maybe something equally a fantasy, like being a writer.
I certainly entertained those thoughts. And when the day came that my husband agreed I could give up the (fruitless two year, hundreds of resumes sent) job hunt and stay at home to give my writing a full-time chance, I was giddy with joy. FINALLY, I could live the life I wanted. All those stories that had been dancing around my head, all those characters demanding to be released, could actually see the light of day. No more alarms, no more power suits, no more office bullshit, and no more disorganized bosses. I stopped being a Certified Administrative Professional, and became a WRITER.
Yeah, you can stop laughing now…

 

lol-cat

I love the smell of folly first thing in the morning…

 

My grand plan was to get up every day when I felt like it, write for a few hours, have lunch, piddle around the housework, fix dinner for the hubby, and finish off the day with a few more hours of writing. I went and bought myself some spiffy writing software (Scrivener is awesome!)*, a cool electronic pad that captures hand-writing (Wacom is awesome!)*, and smooth heavy-bond paper for my fountain pens (Levenger is awesome!)*. I fussed over how my desk should be laid out, whether I should go for time or word count, listen to music or not, have the TV on or not, and about a bazillion other silly things that really didn’t matter but did because I’m a little obsessive/compulsive that way.

In the beginning, I actually did get some stuff accomplished. I (slowly) finished a novel and some short stories, made pretty regular entries here at this old dump of a blog, and did at least two articles a week for an on-line “news” site called Examiner.com, now defunct. I did that gig mainly to get myself back into writing shape, knowing I wouldn’t make a living off it, and left well before their fall. I have made queries and submissions for both the novel and stories, essentially to a large field of crickets, it seems, given the non-responses I’ve received. And I started a second novel. So, in the grand scheme of things, maybe it doesn’t seem all that bad.

Appearances are definitely deceiving.

That early enthusiasm soon fell victim to my own lack of urgency. When I don’t HAVE to get up at a certain time, I don’t. In fact, I’m very cat-like in that regard. I’ll take a nap just about anytime. And when I say nap, I mean at least four hours of unconsciousness cuddled with the actual cats in a cool, dark room. And being naturally a night person, night was when I was awake. I’d see my husband off to work in the morning and promptly head off to the vault for my day’s snooze.

And not being responsible to anyone else’s agenda, when I was awake I wasn’t nearly as productive as I could have been. Hey, look! There’s a game I haven’t played in a long time. Maybe I should make something out of this fabric I’ve had for the last twenty years. Wow, I sure do have a lot of books I need to read – better get started. It’s amazing how fast time disappears when you’re not accountable.

Then came a couple scary events involving hospitals, bill collectors, and mortgage companies. The depression seemed to envelope me whole and what little productivity I’d managed rapidly fell off into nothing. Soon it was mostly sleeping and computer games, because nothing really matters, least of all me. Hiding is what I seem to do best. It’s so easy to put things off when there are no hard deadlines, no people to be responsible to, and no requirements beyond feeding the cats and the husband. And that little dark cave in my mind that began as a refuge, slowly transformed into a prison…

 

Wearing all black

But only until they come up with something darker…

 

I follow several other writers – a couple best-selling/award winners, and a few crawling up the ranks – all of whom are further along their journeys than I. Somewhere along the line, I began dissecting their schedules (if they didn’t outright tell their readers). They all blog more frequently than I, and post on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram numerous times a week. They usually write, or are at least engaged in some aspect surrounding writing, like editing or marketing, everyday. The up-and-comers send out dozens of queries and/or submissions a month, while the established pen mavens have to figure out how to balance all those offers with their already tight schedules. They talk about having to pay the mortgage, dealing with children interrupting their writing time, and imposter syndrome. They are going through all the same issues I am, but they have managed to keep the keystrokes active. They press through even on those days when it seems that writing is more a chore and less the passion they thought it would be.

They do it because they HAVE to, not just because they want to. They are beholding to their families, their editors, their readers, and any number of others involved in the chain of production from inception to publication. Don’t get me wrong: they still love what they do. But like with any career, once it starts rolling, there are other people to think of, and you’d best not let them down.

And that’s what I finally realized I’ve done. This writing thing isn’t just about me. My husband is carrying the household expenses on his shoulders while I piss away my day killing zombies. My family and friends support me and offer encouragement, despite me sleeping curled up with the cats all afternoon. There are even people who aren’t any of the above that read this blog regularly – or at least as regularly as my erratic entries allow – and still follow me regardless.

And that’s why self-motivation is an oxymoron. It doesn’t exist for me. I don’t give a crap for myself, so it doesn’t matter if things get done or not. You can’t motivate someone who doesn’t care. But I’m not operating in a bubble. I know that now. And I just can’t stand to let others down.

So things are going to change. Even if it means using that damn alarm again…

 

 

*   Disclaimer: I have received no monetary sponsorship for these claims. I really do think they’re awesome and use them often!

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There has been lots of talk over the last few years about cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, echo chambers, and the general tendency of humans to hear what they want to hear, not what is actually being said. While this is a problem as old as humans, these last few years has seen it grow to an unprecedented volume. Largely thanks to social media, the fires of misogyny, bigotry, racism, and religious fervor have flared to global conflagrations. If it’s one thing humans really love to do, it’s hate.

The recent kerfluffle over the new female Doctor Who is but a small example of the hate parade out there. Pick just about anything on the Internet, and you’ll find scathing comments below. Pink posts a perfectly innocent family picture, and is slammed for being a terrible mom who’s endangering her children. The Afghani all female robotics team makes history for their country, and they receive death threats. Even cute little kittens aren’t exempt. Kittens!?! Come on, people!

 

i-hate-everything-cat

Even that adorable fluff face…

 

I have to admit experiencing my own moments of “You’re stupid! Fuck you!” but I try to keep them to myself as much as possible. I was brought up with the if-you-can’t-say-anything-nice-don’t-say-anything-at-all philosophy. Though in later years I did learn how to offer constructive criticisms. You can’t be a decent artisan without that. But there’s nothing constructive about the vast majority of what goes flying over the interwebs. It’s just a vomit of anger for no apparent reason.

But there is a reason. The anger isn’t really about Dr. Who or Pink or kittens, it’s about change. The world is going through a maelstrom of change. Again, largely due to the inter-connectedness social media and the Internet offers. And most humans don’t do change all that well. We like our nice little comfortable bubbles of sameness. As long as we keep to the well-worn rut of routine, we can deal. We know what to expect and how to plan for it. Screw with that routine and we all fall apart.

Even the field of science fiction has experienced the pains of change. You’d think a group that pretty much epitomizes progressive thinking – you know, that whole new worlds, new peoples are cool thing – wouldn’t have such a problem. But there’s been a tiny group of grumpy white men (see Sad/Rabid Puppies) who have been railing against the SJW’s (social justice warriors) that have “taken over” THEIR science fiction. They view the inclusion of women, people of color, and LGBTQ issues in FICTION as a direct threat on them and their reign of control. They even went so far as to game the system for the Hugo awards a couple years ago, managing to get a goodly number of THEIR choices onto the ballots, at the expense of much more deserving writers. Thankfully, and to the credit of the majority of the voters, that year also saw the largest selection of “No Award” tallies ever seen at the Hugo’s.

Okay, guys. For one thing, it’s FICTION. ENTERTAINMENT. Don’t like anything that might threaten your delicate manhood? Don’t read/watch it. It’s not a life requirement. You want to live in a closed little bubble, while the rest of the world passes you by, you go right ahead. Since most of you can’t write worth a damn anyway, you’re not likely to get published beyond your vanity press, and you certainly won’t be missed.

 

Unicorn against idiots

I’m really going to be busy…

 

But what happens when a huge swath of the population at large has basically the same ideals? Change bad. Different wrong. And – even worse – disagreement equals attack, resistance equals persecution. The drama needle has swung off the scale and now even the tiniest difference between two people and their opinions becomes an apocalyptic battle of epic proportions.

Are we really that insecure? Are we so unsure of ourselves that we have to hate someone or something else to feel better about ourselves? We have to consider ourselves superior in ANY WAY just to make it through the day? Let’s think about that for a minute. What is hate? For me, hate is fear plus anger. Something scares us and we get angry and therefore we must hate it, because that’s better than running away. Only cowards run away and I’m certainly not a coward, right? Therefore, we must crush the object of our hate because that’s the only way to be safe.

So if the root cause of hate is fear, what are we afraid of? Or, more importantly, WHY are we afraid? Why is including more women – roughly half the entirety of the human race – both as creators and as characters in fiction so scary? Why are people of color – who actually comprise the majority in the world – too terrifying to be allowed equal representation? Why does it matter that the guy next door is having sex with another guy? Are you mad because you weren’t invited?

 

Fear is the enemy

Living your life in fear is no way to live.

 

We hate not because of a problem outside, but because of a problem inside, in our hearts and souls and minds. If you hate a young Afghani girl who wants to play with robots, then YOU are the problem, not her. But she’s a terrorist, you cry. She’s starting with robots and graduating to bombs! Congratulations. You’ve swallowed the cum of propaganda spewed by the fearful old white men who claim to run our country. Instead of thinking for yourself, you’ve followed the party line of hate, and there’s only one way that ends: in our destruction as a civilization.

And while there are those out there that just want to see the world burn, I’d bet most of us would rather that not happen. A hundred years ago, when it took days to walk to the next village, or months for a letter to wend its way to the New World from the old, it was easy to be isolated. And it made sense for local and state governments to have more autonomy over their territories, because they were right there, when the feds were weeks – even months – of travel away. But we’re not isolated anymore. Communication is virtually instantaneous. We can watch the protests in [obscure third-world country] in real-time from our couch in California. And we’re much more mobile, many of us commuting more in a day than our ancestors did in their lifetimes.

The world is not such a big place anymore. We can no longer be isolationist. We can no longer be separatists. We need more cooperation, not less; more integration, not less; more acceptance, not less.

And that means less hate, not more.

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Congratulations! Welcome to the club!

 

Captain Obvious Reading

Glad we cleared that up.

 

According to the US Department of Education, 14% of the US population – and 19% of high school graduates – can NOT read. In US adults, one in five reads below a 5th grade level, while nearly three-quarters of American prison inmates are unable to read above the 4th grade level. For juveniles in the system, the number considered functionally illiterate balloons to 85%. Statistics have shown that the lower the literacy rate of an individual, the higher their chance of being poor, on public aid, or incarcerated. [1]

 

if-you-can-read-this-thank-a-teacher-ef-yoo-20035752 (1)

So suri. Wish i cud giv yoo a raze.

 

Despite what the sad literacy rates might indicate, the Pew Research Center reports that nearly 65% of adults read at least one printed book in the past year, and 73% read a book in any format. [2] A slight decline from the 2012 survey, but still hopeful numbers. Sadly, these don’t seem to include the President. [3] When the supposed “leader of the free world” finds reading unnecessary, that can only mean even more cognitive bias and greater misunderstandings.

 

Enter Society

This could get ugly.

 

The digital revolution has increased the efficiency and availability of hardware and software that can take dictation, transcribe music, read print aloud, and anticipate the user’s next need based on previous interactions. However, there’s some argument against our gadgets actually being good for us. The Marist Poll indicates that a majority of poll respondents believed our devices are detrimental to relationships and lives, leaving us – ironically – less connected. [4]

 

cell-phone-zombie

And what about when your battery dies?

 

 

The more our toys do for us, the less we do for ourselves. Cursive is rarely taught in schools anymore, and an angry toddler with a broken crayon might as well have done what printing I’ve seen from the younger generation. Plus our collective attention span seems to be growing shorter by the minute. With instantaneous communication, video-on-demand, same-day shipping, and click-bait disguised as news, trying to focus on anything for any length of time is a growing challenge. But writing things by hand can lead to better comprehension, [5] and reading more can make you smarter. [6]

 

Reading_quotes_crave_book32

Wands supplied by Ticonderoga and Waterman.

 

 

And now that I’ve used lots of pretty pictures to keep your attention, here’s the point of the story: go read. Go read lots. Go read now. Go read printed or electronic. Go read with friends. Go read alone. Just read. We’ll all be better off. And maybe we can stave off the regression back into pictographs just a little while longer. [7]

 

AfraidEmoji

 

[1] “15 US Literacy Rate and Illiteracy Statistics”

http://brandongaille.com/us-literacy-rate-and-illiteracy-statistics/

[2] “Book Reading 2016”

http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/01/book-reading-2016/

[3] “Trump ‘does not read books’: report”

http://ew.com/books/2017/01/25/trump-does-not-read-books-report/

[4] “6/21: Is Technology “Dumbing Down” Society?”

http://maristpoll.marist.edu/614-is-technology-dumbing-down-society/

[5] “Why Pen and Paper Beats a Laptop Every Time for Taking Notes”

https://www.communicaid.com/communication-skills/blog/writing-skillsbusiness-writing-skills/taking-notes-better-using-laptop-tablet/

[6] “Warren Buffett’s reading routine could make you smarter, science suggests”

http://www.cnbc.com/2016/11/16/warren-buffetts-reading-routine-could-make-you-smarter-suggests-science.html

[7] “How Emojis are Like Hieroglyphics”

https://www.mabbly.com/how-emojis-are-like-hieroglyphics/

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We’ve all seen it. The nick-of-time rescue. The bomb diffused with one second left. The suspect bolting when the cops show up, resulting in a parkour-style chase around the city. These, and many others, are standard tropes in film and television. Sadly, they and their ilk show up a lot in fiction writing as well. I’ve even poked fun at some of them before (“Attack of the Killer Clichés”, “Return of the Killer Clichés”).

It’s time for them to die. Really. NOW.

They used to have their place on (rare) occasion. But speaking as someone who watches a lot of streaming video while playing with string, I’m sick of seeing them EVERYWHERE. And, with the crush of indie publishing, fan fic, and writer’s “critique” sites, I’m seeing it more and more in fiction as well.

That’s just lazy writing, people.

Not that I haven’t done my fair share of tropes and stereotypes. Part of my reason for doing this piece is to remind myself of all the bad writing habits I have, and possibly figure out how to fix/avoid them. As opposed to just avoiding my writing all together…

 

Minion tea[4]

…and dark chocolate…

 

So, why do we have such tropes in the first place? One word: drama. We’re trying to up the drama quotient. For a story to be successful we need to have tension and consequences and challenges for our characters to wade through. If there’s no risk for the character(s), there’s no reward for the reader(s).

But there’s a bazillion ways to cause trouble for our characters. It’s time to get inventive. We writers are really evil geniuses channeling our Dr. No selves onto the page, so let loose your inner demons and give the world you’ve created something to REALLY worry about. And I don’t mean turning that bomb they’ll need to diffuse at the last second into a dirty bomb, or a bio-bomb. Been there, done that, played the video game.

No, if you need to blow shit up, do it metaphorically instead of literally. If your characters are well developed (see “It’s Made of People”), it should be easy to come up with stuff to throw in their way. What’s the worse possible thing (or person) that could happen to them? Why does it need to happen? How will it advance the story or the character’s development? Everything you do on the page needs to keep things moving forward, in some fashion, for the overall arc of your writing.

That doesn’t mean leaving out things that can add depth to the world you’re creating, though, just because it doesn’t directly affect what’s happening. Black-clad mercenaries are a dime-a-dozen. But mercenaries who collect butterflies and read Harry Potter are something else again. Now you have some depth you can dive into. Will any of that be pertinent to your story later? Maybe. Maybe not. Right now, though, it gives me-the-reader something interesting about your character I can latch on to. There’s more there than black leather and a gun. That could mean there’s more to your story than the usual revenge/redemption/killer rampage most mercenaries inhabit.

 

Dominatrix Minion

That’s not the kind of black leather I meant. Now I need the eye bleach…

 

But what if I REALLY want to blow something up?

Then blow it the fuck up. Make it spectacular. Make it a surprise. Make it heart-rending. Make it anything but the usual. I don’t want to see your hero rushing in at the last second, huffing about how the bomb squad won’t get there in time and is it the red wire or the blue wire as he bites through both with his teeth to save the day. I want to see him crushed by defeat because he DIDN’T get there in time. Or horrified because he didn’t know the bomb even existed. Or secretly elated because now he has the perfect excuse to go on a murderous rampage.

Okay, yeah, that’s another trope, too. Sorry.

The point is, do something DIFFERENT. If you’re finding yourself falling into the same old comfortable ruts for plot points and character development, get out. Pretend it’s Opposite Day and you’re playing a game of Calvinball. Be wicked. Be absurd. Be outrageous. Kill the hero, because he’s not really the hero, his female sidekick is – psych! Don’t kill anybody, because the bomb was really a dud! The bomb DOES go off, but the entire city is coated in glitter! Anything but the usual.

And how do you know if it’s the usual? Just ask yourself: have I seen/read/heard this before? If you have, how important is it to keep it “normal?” What happens if you do THIS instead? If the ticking time bomb is integral to your story, what are you doing around that to make your characters and story different?

 

minion-emergency-helpame

Read a book, they said. It’ll be fun, they said…

 

There are occasions when we depend on tropes and stereotypes as a kind of shorthand for the reader. It can make for less explanation/exposition, and allow us to get on with the real reason this story needs to be told. But we should never depend on them. The world is comforted by formula – the tried and true (see Hollywood) – but we writers need to constantly rail against the expected, the normal, the usual, and really dig into exploring our worlds to the fullest. Whatever your genre, whether fiction or non-fiction, we want the reader to be entertained, enthralled, surprised – not bored or disappointed. Give them predictable and they’ll give you the cold shoulder. Writing is lonely enough – we don’t need to chase off any readers in the process.

Turn the formulae on their heads. Find the peculiar, the wretched, the dangerous, and let us have it. Always challenge yourself. You’ll be a better writer, and I’ll have more cool things to read.

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She’s not at all what you would expect.

No shroud of murky darkness. No raving anger. No muttering excuses. No whorls of swirling depression blasting everything else to bits.

Just a sympathetic smile.

She sits on my desk sipping from a delicate teacup, as if her appearance in the middle of the night – and the middle of my writing – is a perfectly normal occurrence.

Okay, maybe it is a little more normal than it should be. But it’s not any less annoying.

Looking for all the world like Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies, I half anticipate her guzzling from a jug of “rheumatism medicine” instead of that dainty china doll accessory. But then, I’m not entirely sure of the contents, and she’s the type that hides that kind of stuff in plain sight.

“It’s all right, dear,” she coos. “It’s for the best.”

I just glare at her. I know what she means, and what the rest of her litany will entail. I’ve heard it my whole life. Every time there’s a bump in the road. With every obstacle, every challenge, every rejection. Even with the successes, too. Always that little whisper just off my shoulder.

A raging monster would be easy to ignore, by comparison.

“It’s just the way of the world now.” She takes another sip, pinky out, and rests her cool blue gaze on me. “And it’s ALWAYS been the way of the entertainment industry. You’re battling terrible odds on the best of days.”

She’s right about that. I’m no spring chicken and ageism is rampant, even for novelists. It should be about the product – it should ALWAYS be about the product. But people are what they are. Prejudice dies hard, if at all. And being a good writer isn’t always good enough.

“You can’t help support the household with rejection slips.” Her gnarled hand rests gently on my arm, with a little pat for emphasis. “Maybe you should just stick with what makes money. There’s no shame in that.”

No shame.

No shame in settling. No shame in giving up. No shame being good, but not quite good enough. That’s the story of my life.

All my glory days were long ago. All the genius, all the talent, doesn’t mean anything in a world that favors the loudmouth, the provocateur, the bombastic. Give the masses a sequined three-ring circus and blow up the MC as the finale, and you might get some attention. Social Media is god and goddess. Repeat the inane enough times and it turns into a catchy phrase. Watch that catchy phrase all tarted up for Sunday dinner at the whorehouse win the presidency.

“No one wants smart anymore.” Granny pulls out her big brown jug and chugs a few. I’m not sure what happened to the teacup – there’s no sign of it amidst the clutter of my desk. “It’s all about fake news and alternate facts and screwing everybody but the rich in the name of Jesus H. Christ-on-a-cracker. That’s just not for you, dear.”

Ain’t that the truth. But someone has to be the light keeper. Someone has to be the repository of reason and common sense and fact-based intelligence. Who better than a science fiction writer?

“There’s already so many good ones out there.” She winks at me and swigs another gulp off the jug.

I hate that she’s in my head. I’m never really free of her. And I hate that she’s so often right. There are a ton of good writers out there, already. The David Gerrolds, the John Scalzis, the Chuck Wendigs, the Jim Wrights. All fabulous writers with scathing wit and near-prescient powers of observation. They’ll not only keep the light burning, they’ll weaponize it and napalm the hell out of the stupids. I live barely in their shadows – a cockroach hoping a crumb will fall my way so I can feel like the gods have blessed me.

The jug is proffered in my general direction. “It’ll take the edge off.”

Like that’s a good idea. Just hide in your poison of choice. Hide in that world someone else created because you can’t handle the world you live in. Or the world you should be creating. Real writers write. Fake writers dream of publishing deals while killing orcs.

Too bad I’m old and have tits. I’d probably be a damn good game writer.

“Of course you would, dear.” The jug is tipped over and drizzling its contents down the side of my desk. “Everybody loved having you run games in college. Thirty-five years ago.”

She may look like an innocent little old lady, but her delivery would rival Dame Maggie Smith’s best Downton Abbey snark.

On the downhill side of middle age, and nothing to show for my efforts. So much of my life spent dreaming instead of doing. Because of that little bitch perched in the middle of my soul.

“It’s too hard for you, dear.”

“It doesn’t matter how good you are – you don’t know the right people.”

“You’re good. But not good enough.”

“You don’t really want success, do you? Just think of all the crowds you’d have to deal with.”

If she were an ugly monster, beating her would be easy. Heroic, even. But Granny is a sweet little thing, always looking out for my best interests, of course. Protecting me from the hurt. I won’t get rejected if I don’t put myself out there in the first place. I’m okay right where I am. I have a nice house and a great husband and there’s no need for me to get myself all beat up over something that’s really a pipe dream. Let’s face it – everybody wants to be a writer. And they’re a dime a dozen. So many of them will write for free. And so many of them will write badly. The world is littered with terrible copy under noisy videos claiming to be news, and no one seems to care.

“That’s right, dear.” The teacup has returned, held between finger and thumb like it is a dirty diaper and there’s no pail in sight. “No one cares about quality anymore. So you shouldn’t waste your time.”

I lean back in my chair and scowl. “Fuck you, Granny.”

 

 

Worst thing you write

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“Where do you get your ideas?”

Just about any artist, in any field, will have this question thrown at them at some point. If they’re being truthful, the answer is “Damned if I know.” Sure, there are about a bazillion different books, videos, blog entries, pod casts, and what-have-yous out there that claim to be the One True Way. But they’re all bullshit. Except for the person that created them.

Because the “process” is different for everybody. Anybody can learn the fundamentals of an art form. In writing it’s things like spelling, vocabulary, sentence structure, and point of view. In music you have reading the score, learning your instrument, timing, and breath control. Each field has their own set of basics that is universal across the globe. Get a solid grasp of the basics, and then maybe you can wander off on your own. After all, you have to know the rules before you can break them.

 

picassoquote3

 

But the origin of ideas is as individual and personal as a pubic hair. Just like DNA can point to a specific individual, so can the manifestation of an art form. We can tell the difference between Beethoven and Liszt, Rembrandt and Monet, or Austen and Shelley just by observation. Unidentified works can be reasonably attributed to their creator because of unique characteristics, such as tonality and phrasing, color palette and brush strokes, or vocabulary and style.

The beginning is no different. Stephen King reportedly gets his ideas from seeing one or two things in juxtaposition, then asking “What if?” Sting is known to use “semantic intuition” for his writing, a process where the title comes first and then the song (something I do as well, though didn’t realize it was actually a thing until I read this article). An artist might be doodling on paper, and then is suddenly struck by something, a spark lit in the dark that leads to a fire of work. Many times the finished product is hard pressed to show any relation to the original root inspiration because that’s just how it works. We still have more mystery of the mind than mastery, so trying to explain how looking at a lamp at a friend’s house led to a space opera trilogy (true story!) is just not gonna happen. Because I don’t know how to explain it any better than “It just is.”

It’s all done in the subconscious. Mine is apparently run by a bunch of gremlins in the middle of a color run while drinking copious amounts of moonshine. That’s the only way I can explain some of the stuff that goes on in my head. My dreams are vivid, convoluted messes that range from the whimsical (flying over a field of white, fluffy sheep) to the fantastical (riding a dragon while wielding a great sword); from the wishful (yay! Telekinetic powers!) to the fearful (post-apocalyptic survival, anyone?); from the reassuring (my husband’s arms around me) to the nightmarish (lots and lots of blood). I have no idea where most of this stuff comes from, and a lot of these dreams have been with me since pre-TV childhood, so I can’t blame them on that.

 

brain difficulties

 

At any given point there’s about a dozen different things going on in my head. I don’t know how it is for other people, but it’s never quiet in there. Never. Every now and then something appears out of that maelstrom and I have to put it down on paper. Sometimes it’s a complete story that seems to auto-write itself. Other times all I get is a cryptic clue that would leave Columbo scratching his head. As I mentioned above, I get a lot of titles before anything else. They just kind of appear – POOF! – fully formed and then it’s up to me to figure out what they’re really about. Sometimes I’ll just be reading something and select words will jump out at me and put themselves together, for no known reason. On occasion I’ve seen writing prompts that have words assigned to numbers, and then you use a random number generator to pick the words you’ll use. A couple of my stories waiting for words started that way. Great titles. No idea yet what they’re about.

Eventually the nebulous cloud will begin to coalesce, and I’ll start putting the bits and pieces together. Usually characters are the first to show up. When they do, my job becomes easy, because all I have to do then is just sit back and write what they tell me. Doesn’t matter to me how interesting the concept might be, how cutting-edge the science might be, what kind of statement is being made – if I don’t have people I can connect with, I’m not interested. I need to be able to put myself into the story by virtue of one of the characters. And it doesn’t have to be a main character, either. Or human, for that matter. I just need a spark of familiarity and I’m all in.

And, yes, I get stuck sometimes. Not including those grinding depressive cycles that cause me to ignore my writing because it doesn’t matter (read: I don’t matter), most episodes of what is commonly called writer’s block can be broken with a series of questions. If I’m looking at a blank page with no thread of a start, I might pop over to the Random Title Generator and give it a spin. Today’s results were:

Emerald Snake

The Green Dream

Slave of Rings

The Dream’s Lord

The Sparks of Silence

Hunter in the Male

Hmm, some interesting possibilities there. Take Emerald Snake. The questions I use are the six basics of journalism: who, what, when, where, why, and how? Who’s interested in this thing? What exactly is it – literal or descriptive? When did this story happen? Where is the snake? Why is it important? How does it all end?

 

notthecreativeprocess

 

My first inkling when I saw that title was a flash of the great film noir The Maltese Falcon. Again, no idea why it engendered such a response, but now we have a framework on which to build. We need a hard-boiled detective type, a femme fatale, and a cunning adversary. Except – since I’m a science fiction writer – let’s make it a starship first officer, an alien ambassador, and a computer built by some ancient and long-dead species. Now I just keep asking the basic questions to build the story. Who is this first officer? What does s/he want? When is this part of his/her life? Where is s/he going? Why a starship? How does this officer matter? I watch the trunk of the plot fill in, asking those questions at each new junction, and following them to the branches of subplots, asides, flashbacks, parallel storylines, and backstory. Sometimes that’s all I need to get it done.

But sometimes I get stuck in the middle somewhere, and those basic questions aren’t bringing me anything. That’s when I bring out the big guns. The first is from the character’s point of view: what can he/she/it do (not necessarily deliberately) that will totally fuck things up? Every one of us has been in a situation and made a decision that we thought was perfectly fine at the time, only to discover later that it was exactly opposite of what was needed. The second question is about the scenario in general: what is the worse possible thing that could happen now? Plans go awry, innocent interruptions have deadly consequences, and people make mistakes. Stories aren’t interesting if the characters are walking through their world without a worry. Just like humans seem to feel more alive when there’s a little danger involved, so do stories when circumstances are turned on their heads. Throw the snake in and see what happens.

There are as many ways to create as there are people. The trick is to accept that there are no tricks, because trick implies a deception or a joke. Being a creative artist is no joke, despite what the modern world may tell us. And trying to fit into that world is deceiving our true selves, not anyone else. Wherever your spark of insanity comes from, however your ideas come to you, just let it roll. Because in the great scheme of things, the way that works for you is the only One True Way.

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