At Play

I sat down at my favorite little coffee place to write this morning. I had a good topic in mind, one inspired by a discussion I had about depression and anxiety and the realities that affect so many people. Like so many people, the guy I was talking with didn’t think those things were “real.” He thought they were just expressions of “weakness” on the part of those who fight those particular demons…

The post I had in mind was going to be honest and blunt, and not the most uplifting thing in the world.

But I sat down to write in the coffee shop.

A young mom was in there, with her two sons. The boys were maybe 18 months and 3-4 years old. While she sipped her coffee and read on her phone, the kids were playing, rough-housing, and in general just cracking each other up.

I’ve mentioned before that soundtracks & music can (quite literally) make the scenes we want to write. Well, there are more soundtracks than just music…

It is, I discovered, well-and-truly impossible to write a post that is “honest and blunt, and not the most uplifting thing in the world” when you are laughing your ass off at the innocent antics of two young kids. At this particular moment, the bright plastic trucks lie forgotten and the 3-4 year old is “losing” a wrestling match so his little brother can pin him…

How do you write about the darker side of life in the face of that? How do you tackle difficult subjects surrounded by the simple joy of play?

EBEA97F7-1D7A-4965-AD56-A33CBD8EC562I wanted to be grumpy today…now I’m chuckling and in a good mood.

Harrumph!

Don’t Drive Angry!

Okay, so vent-post time…

71B1A6B0-460F-48C7-9F03-659397E7EF33Wait! Don’t drive angry!

Err, that’s not quite it…

Don’t post angry!

That’s it, that’s the rule…but screw it, I’ll post however I want, thank you very much.

I’ve hinted before that I’m …err… “involved” in the craft-beer industry. “Involved” is glossing over quite a bit, but…well…let’s just say that I am an actual expert in taprooms and small batch breweries and leave it there.

Now, from time to time, I like to check out new breweries in my personal neck of the woods. I should probably add that where I live is often(ish) referred to as the “Napa Valley of beer”. Northern Colorado has a lot going for it in our hiking and camping and rafting and fishing, but it has even more in our local craft breweries. Places like Avery and O’Dells and Horse & Dragon and WeldWerks would be worth visiting even if we didn’t have the damned Rockies right outside the door…

Checking out new breweries is, for me, a whole lot like opening a book from an author I’ve never read: it’s all about potential and excitement. Unfortunately — again, like new authors — it can be pretty damned hard to live up to my (increasingly) high expectations. In the brewing world, it’s most often the beer that fails. It is just too easy to screw up beer, to be honest; off-flavors from poor recipes, or poor technique, or poor hygiene/sanitation… There is a lot that can go wrong in the brewing process, and most new breweries manage to find each and every one of those potential problems.

But that’s okay. That’s understandable, even.

It takes a while to transition from smaller batch brewing — especially from home brewing — to larger commercial systems. I can honestly forgive brewing problems if they are corrected by the time I make a second visit. What I can’t forgive, however, is stupidity. What I can’t forgive are poor taprooms. And what I can forgive even less than those two unforgivable sins is a poor customer experience.

Sadly, I hit the freaking trifecta today: bad beer at one place, a bad taproom at another, and a shitty customer experience at a third.

Goddammit, all I wanted was some time and space — and a couple of beers — to sit and write for a few hours! Instead, all I got was disappointment…and anger. Two of these three problems happened at places that should know better, at places that have been in business for years. That they are still suffering these business/craft-brew sins drives me absolutely insane.

Err, kinda like writing, actually…

Certain sins and faults can be forgiven in someone’s early works…but those problems better damned well be fixed by the next story. On the other hand, those same faults from writers who should know better really ARE unforgivable…and they damned well should result in failure.

Just like a brewery with a bad taproom, just like a brewery that cannot give a good customer experience, a writer that cannot manage to handle the depth of character and plot needed to write a truly compelling story is going to run out of grace and success pretty stinking quickly.

Just like I can forgive tastes of corn and butterscotch from a new brewer — as long as (s)he doesn’t repeat them — I can forgive shallowness and corner-cutting from a new writer…

But, if that brewer has been around for a few years…

But, if that writer has been around for a few stories…

Yeah, you better have your shit together, ‘cause all that tolerance and forgiveness goes away pretty damned fast.

(By the way, if you ever want a list of breweries to avoid, I’m your guy!)

The Book I Want to Read

brain1-e1312872869675-281x300I thought about a couple of topics for today. I even had a couple of posts worked up in my mind. Then my brain turned into old cheese, and…well…there ain’t much left in there at this point in time.

Erm…

Okay, so instead of trying to dredge up those sparkling, all-star, award-winning — and lost — ideas, I’ll just go with what I was thinking about as I drove to the coffee shop this morning: a book I wish had been written.

This whole train of thought came about after reading some interviews with Robert Jordan from a few years ago. Now, Jordan* is most famous for passing away with 3 books remaining in his 14-volume magnum opus, The Wheel of Time, but he was a man who most definitely was far more than “just” a massively successful fantasy writer. More on that later.

*A pen name, by the way, but I’ll stick with it as that is how he is best known. Yay for all us pen-name users!

WoT is a great series, by the way, even if it can be infuriating as hell, even frustrating at times. Jordan’s talent as a writer puts him solidly among the very few at the top of the mountain. It also happens to be a favorite of mine; I’ve read those 4+ million words several times, in fact…

But the story of the Dragon Reborn and the White Tower (and all the dozens of other subplots) is NOT the story Jordan set out originally to write. No, the original vision of the story was about an old soldier returning home from his final war. It was a story intended to be about his efforts to rebuild a life, and a spirit, all-but destroyed by war…only to be forced to take part in yet one more fight.

I want to read that story. I want to read about that old soldier.* I want to read Jordan’s insights and emotions on that topic. I want to read it not because of his undeniable talent as a writer, but because he lived it. Jordan’s take on the end of his time in Vietnam is chillingly honest and impactful, especially to those of us with friends and loved ones who have their own demons and memories of combat. Those words, and the wisdom behind them, get to the heart of who Jordan is as a man, and as a writer…and to the heart of the book I wish I could have read.

*Rand’s father, Tam, if you’re familiar at all with the Wheel of Time series.

Here is part of the passage about his time in Vietnam that I found so powerful:

I have, or used to have, a photo of a young man sitting on a log eating C-rations with a pair of chopsticks. There are three dead NVA laid out in a line just beside him. He didn’t kill them. He didn’t chose to sit there because of the bodies. It was just the most convenient place to sit. The bodies don’t bother him. He doesn’t care. They’re just part of the landscape. The young man is glancing at the camera, and you know in one look that you aren’t going to take this guy home to meet your parents. Back in the world, you wouldn’t want him in your neighborhood, because he is cold, cold, cold. I strangled that SOB, drove a stake through his heart, and buried him face down under a crossroad outside Saigon before coming home, because I knew that guy wasn’t made to survive in a civilian environment. I think he’s gone. All of him. I hope so.

I didn’t originally plan this post to be solely about Robert Jordan, and about Tam’s unwritten story, but the man has had a profound effect on me as both reader and writer…too great an effect, in fact, to shortchange. He is a major part of the reason — alongside Zelazny, Eddings, Cherryh, LeGuin, Feist, Tolkien and Heinlein — why I write sci-fi and fantasy. For that reason, among others, I owe him a debt I can never repay…

216D3D4C-DEC0-4D48-ACF1-622DAA638CCEPost Script:

This post, by the way, did touch off some thinking about a (necessary) follow-up. A follow-up that will take a great deal more thought, and more time, however, than I generally give to these posts. It’s going to be a post for which I will actually have to do research: the impact of (real) war on sci-fi and fantasy. Jordan wasn’t alone in having his battlefield experiences profoundly affect his writing: from Tolkien in the trenches in WWI, to Haldeman and Jordan (and a host of others) in Vietnam, the realities of combat have shaped some of the best works we have in the field…and that’s without touching on the all-time greats that I love, writers like Graves and Tolstoy and Wouk…

Updated: because I suck at editing.

Update #2: I didn’t think I had to explain — mostly because I buy into the writing theory that you explain only what you have to — but I’ve had a couple of private questions on the passage above, so here is the explanation I avoided before: the photo in question is of Jordan himself, and the “man” he killed is what he had become during the war…

Genre Squirreling

There was a story in Wired the other day that caught my eye. Now, I don’t normally read Wired, but it was a story about ”why sci-if is the most important genre,” so of course I had to have a go at reading it.

I’m not going to rehash that story here, instead I figured I would touch a bit more thoroughly on that question I get so often from friends and acquaintances: “why sci-fi?”

One thing to keep is mind is that that question, whether intentionally or not, comes loaded with all kinds of hints of disdain and criticism. It also comes with a need — an imperative, almost — to defend the genre, and the decision to write within it.

So…why sci-fi?

Because I want to.

Alright, there is more to it than that…

moonbeerOne of my all-time favorite writing quotes comes from sci-fi writer John Scalzi — “They say write what you know. I write what no one knows.” Writing what no one knows, writing what you can imagine, writing where you think the paths of dream and thought and time will lead…well…that’s just plain fun.

It is also, by the way, challenging. It’s challenging to think and explore. It’s challenging to dwell on — and write about — the tension between what will be and what could be.

One thing to keep in mind is that I, as a sci-fi writer, try not to make stuff up out of whole cloth. Okay…I try to not to make everything up out of whole cloth. Rather, I like to take tends and developments and problems I see today, and play them out in my mind to see where they will lead. That those all seem to lead to places dark and depressing isn’t because I want them to … nosirree … they lead there because humanity could (and very likely will) fuck up a pillow fight in a whorehouse.*

*Okay, so maybe I’m just a tad cynical…

I once said, in an old IWSG post, that sci-fi isn’t a petri dish, it’s a still. It’s not for looking at plots & characters in isolation, it’s for taking everything you think and know and believe, mashing it all together, and seeing what you can brew out of it…

In those terms, sci-fi is a tool rather than a defining characteristic. It lets the writer take current or historic trends and problems and play with them. It lets the writer shine a light on the world of today through the lens of the world of tomorrow. Walt Disney got that one wrong, by the way — the world of tomorrow isn’t a place of innocence and fresh starts, the world of tomorrow is the place where the bill comes due for all of the fuck-ups of today. Our children and grandchildren will pay that bill, just as we are paying the one from our parents and grandparents.

Ahem. I think I broke the off-switch on my cynicism-gland…

Sci-fi also lets you explore and play with themes more than any other genre. As a story about two abused, exploited street kids, Somewhere Peaceful could’ve been set in any modern port city. BUT…by setting it on a space station, a few centuries in the future, I gave myself the ability to, err, compress a world of problems (our world of problems) into one small society. I also gave myself the ability to play with languages and cultures and social dynamics in ways I never would have been able to had I set the story in modern New York, or Boston, or Marseilles…

W84BtfOPlus…aliens. Wait…I mean ALIENS!

And lasers…and spaceships…and drugs, rape, robbery and all those pesky deadly sins that ain’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The fantasy story I’m working up, by the way, is a different ball of wax. Oh, the deadly sins are still there, but the thematic issues I have in the back of my mind are more internal and personal than societal.

Plus, swords…and horseys…and MAGIC!

IMG_0155Never mind — I think all the caffeine is starting to get to me…

Shit, maybe next time I should try to explore a genre I don’t write in — how ‘bout “why romance?”

So…why sci-fi?

That question gets the same answer as many other questions in my life: why not?4F8598FB-B6BD-4B58-9BF6-5BD0BFDBF159