Another Titan is Gone

A conversation came up a few days ago, one about old-school comedians and those who have truly stood the test of time. Now, that conversation may have simply faded into the background, never to be remarked upon nor even remembered, had the real world, and yet another death, not intruded.

Aretha Franklin was one of the all-time great talents. There is no limiting her to a specific genre or style, no limiting her to “great female performer” or “great black performer.” She was great. Period. Full stop. She was a performer whose impact and legacy will rightfully be felt long, long after her passing.

This post started solely as a tribute to Ms Franklin, and a recognition of her passing, but then the little wheels of my brain started turning. I started to think about the all-time greats, about those who will truly live on past their deaths, and about how far above the rest they truly stand.

Whether singer, painter, writer, or any other form of artist, the ultimate achievement to which we can aspire is to leave behind something that matters.* Aretha’s position in history is solid and secure because of her influence, and the works she has left behind, but how many others can honestly make that claim?

*As ever, there’s a song for that: Chuck Ragan’s “What We Leave Behind.”

How many singers today will have their music and talent live on for decades, if not centuries? How many writers, or actors, or — indeed — comedians, will influence those who follow anywhere near as much as Aretha Franklin?

Two decades ago, Jerry Seinfeld was praised as the greatest comedian of the age. Today, how many truly look to his show, or his performances, as one of the greats? How many would honestly rank that show with M*A*S*H? Or Seinfeld himself with someone like Bob Hope?

As I mentioned in the intro, Aretha’s death brought back to me that conversation I had about comedians — and about what, and who, we consider great. What sit-com or show today can stand against Monty Python’s Flying Circus? When I look back, there really are only a handful of shows on that short list: I love Lucy, The Carol Burnett Show, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Cheers…

Whether or not you were even alive when those were made, they stand the test of time. I know kids and young teens today who still crack-up at the Three Stooges, and who would rather watch them than anything on TV or NetFlix.

You can make that list for just about anything, by the way. You can make it for actors, or for writers, or directors or painters…or for singers.

I may have my current fixation and passion for bluegrass- and folk-influenced rock, yes, but not even my favorites can stand up against the true greats. Gaslight Anthem versus Aretha Franklin? Mumford & Sons versus Billie Holiday? Chuck Ragan versus Otis Redding? The Avett Brothers versus Robert Johnson? Those aren’t even contests.

In honor of Aretha Franklin, then, and the other titans we have lost, take some time over the next few days and weeks to return to the works of those you consider truly great. Listen to their albums, watch their movies, read their books…

If, as Chuck Ragan said in the song I linked, “all we are is what leave behind,” then those few are the best of us. Return to them, not just to learn but also to enjoy…and to acknowledge true greatness.

IMG_0720And, as a final thought: Rest In Peace, Aretha.  All the respect in the world is yours…

Revisiting Those Old Stories

Sooooo…

Well…

I don’t if it’s just me, but…from time to time I feel the need to go back and re-read my old stuff. That is an urge that is, I hope, far less narcissistic than it actually sounds…

Now, for the vast majority of the stuff I’m talking about re-reading, it has been long enough for me to lose that intimacy with the story that makes it so hard, as the writer, to look at things with a distant and unprejudiced eye.

That…umm…ain’t always easy, by the way, and it certainly ain’t all that comfortable. “What the fuck was I thinking?!” is not an uncommon excla…err, question that I scream…err, ask myself.

But, honestly, if you can’t learn from yourself, who the hell can you learn from?

The thing is, I have stuff going back a very long time, and most of it has never seen so much as a hint of the light of day. For very good reasons those stories have never seen that light. But you can’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t revisit them.

None of my friends, I should probably add, have to do this. Accountants, managers, sales reps, even brewers for the love of all that’s holy, don’t feel the need to go back re-live their failures and mistakes…

But writers do. We have to.

Of course, most of us are also freaking nuts, so make of that what you will…

All of that is a long-winded way of saying I went back to an old story of mine over the last week or so. I didn’t go back to edit or revise — although the urge to do so was strong — but just to read. To read, and to study and think, and to learn.

I picked this particular story mainly because it was the original one for which I created the basic universe & milieu in which my current sci-fi series is set. I wanted to revisit some specific elements and dynamics, and to re-learn some of what I had  been thinking back then. Even more, I wanted to compare the vast difference in tone and intent I had in that story with what I have now for DockRat.

The process has been…well…humbling is the best word, I think.

The hard part for me is that there are the bones of a good story buried in this piece. I would have to do a total re-write, admittedly, but there is still a good story in there, a story worth telling. Unfortunately, I just don’t know if I have the (masochistic) drive to revisit a 127,000-word story in order to rewrite 60+% of it, no matter what potential it has.

An urge spawned this post, an urge to pick out a scene from that piece and share it here. A scene that still had impact and meaning, a scene that still worked. But…but…

But, I didn’t do that. I didn’t do that because it’s harder than you might think.

Oh, it’s not that I can’t find a scene to use — quite the opposite, in fact — it’s just that, well…I can’t stop revising the damned things. I can’t see past the flaws. Far, far worse, for me, is the fact that I’m not sure the emotional center-of-gravity of the story is where I thought it was when I wrote the damned thing. The “important” scenes I was thinking about appending to this post are somehow less than I once thought, while others have grown in weight and import…

Remember what I once said about doing an “After Action Report” when you finish writing a story? Yeah, this is yet another example of why that whole concept works. I’m still learning from a flawed and broken story that I first envisioned and started writing ten years ago.

Okay, so…well…crap…

Humbling sounds all good and nice in theory, but it can also sometimes make it hard to remember why I chose to give up the paychecks and position I used to have in favor of scribbling stories about the ghosts fluttering around the dark spaces of my mind…

Microfiction Fri…err, Monday

Late post today, and there weren’t any saved up in my Drafts section…  I didn’t feel like coming up with an actual “topic,” so I took a song lyric for inspiration and threw together a flashfiction piece instead:

Someone Else’s Skin

Every movement was awkward and uncomfortable. Nothing felt right, nothing felt like it should. I stared and studied throughout my morning routine, but the face in the mirror stayed a stranger. It was close to my own, but not close enough.

More minutes, and more routine, and my clothes didn’t fit right. They hung and they clung, in all the wrong places. They were clothes for someone else…for that face I saw in the mirror.

The face that wasn’t me.

Time in the car gave more time to wonder, and to fear. Who the hell was I?

I stepped through a door, then, and strange faces smiled and called greetings. Faces I didn’t know, in a place I didn’t recognize. Dread grew and I feared I had lost everything.

The wrong face, the wrong clothes…the only thing that felt the same was me, but a me that was shrunken and hidden. I was a beaten thing, I realized, hiding from harm and danger. And from loss.

I was right, I had lost everything. Everything but me.

To wear someone else’s skin, to be someone else… Was I hiding, or had I finally surrendered? Had I finally accepted “better than nothing”?

Was I the stranger, and that stranger’s skin the real truth?

A return greeting for all those strange faces — a smile, even — and the answer began to terrify me.

The Rules of the Game

All games have rules. Some games take that further and have rules that are as detailed as they are nit-picky and annoying. Then there’s golf, which has so many damned rules, even the professionals don’t know them all — they have to rely on freaking TV viewers to call in and report violations!

See…this is why I play hockey, our rules are simple: if it would be a felony in real life, it gets you two minutes in the box.

Writing, like *ahem* golf, has rules. More rules, in fact, than any one human can truly master….or even care about. Rules about grammar and punctuation, yes, but also rules about word-counts and naming conventions and style, rules about structure and pacing and subject matter, rules about this and that, rules about rules…

E646353B-E58F-4564-826C-B8FE4166E50AMy preferred — and flippant — answer is to treat those rules like I do the rules of hockey: do your crime, then do your time*. To put it in terms my current protagonist would use: you do what you have to, then you pay the price.

*I have, I should probably mention, visited the penalty box a time or two in my hockey life…

Neither editors nor agents particularly like that attitude, however, so maybe I should be a bit more deliberate with my answer (and my rule-breaking).

So, here it is: rules matter…until they don’t. Or, put more accurately: you can never break the rules, until you can break them successfully.

Tom Wolfe broke just about every rule of grammar and dialogue in existence. He even invented a few just so he could break them. But he’s freaking Tom Wolfe, for God’s sake. He did more than make that rule-breaking work, he made it his inimitable style. When it comes to the rest of the writer-ly universe, every (good) beta-reader and editor in existence is going to slap you silly for breaking the accepted rules of grammar and style…

…unless you make it work.

Heck, George RR Martin broke all kinds of rules, too, with the Game of Thrones* series. He broke rules about using names that were “too similar,” rules about depicting sex and rape in darkly explicit terms, rules about tone and content and subject matter. And…well…all that rule-breaking kinda worked out for Martin, too. But it worked precisely because that rule-breaking was the very basis for his world, and for the storytelling of the series. Oh, and because he’s pretty damned good at that whole “writing” thing, too.

*I know, I know — it’s technically the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, but “Game of Thrones” is just so much easier to type!

Robert Jordan didn’t just break the rules about word-count and story pacing with his Wheel of Time series, he had those rules hung, drawn & quartered, shot, stabbed, drowned, burned, and shot into the goddamned sun. Now, Jordan is an interesting case about rule-breaking: he made it work in that every single one of those books* spent time at number one on the bestseller lists, but…well…not to put too fine a point on it…he needed an editor able to say the word “No” in the worst freaking way.

*And the over four million total words!

There are any number of articles and posts out there with all kinds of rules and suggestions. Editors, authors, agents, readers…you can find a piece from any perspective you want. A good compilation of “rules” from successful writers can be found here, if you want a single go-to resource.

One suggestion I have — I’ll not call it a rule, thank you very much — is to spend some time researching those voices, and rules, that apply to your current story’s genre. Whether you choose to break them or not, you probably should know what those rules are.

Just one simple example as to why I mention doing that research based on genre: a new fiction writer with a first book is “expected” — which translates to “demanded” in agent- and editor-speak — to come in between 90,000 and 100,000 words. More than that and you’re in trouble. In sci-fi & fantasy, however, that expectation becomes 105,000-125,000 words, and it is when you come in below that lower expectation that the trouble really starts.

All that being said, however, there are some general writing-specific rules I have gleaned over time and practice that apply* across the board.

*Err…do I really need to add the caveat that these rules are just my opinion, and that your mileage may — and probably will — vary?

1) Read your stuff out loud — there simply is no better way to find those run-on sentences and awkward constructions and instances of stilted language, bad grammar/tense, and jacked-up tone/POV. The key corollary to keep in mind is that if you can’t read a sentence in a single breath, it’s broken. I find it best to do this process when I am revising for the second draft…which can lead to all kinds of, umm, interesting interactions in the taproom.

2) Words are meant to be cut — no, really, go through and kill all kinds of ‘em. 90% of the time, the sentence is — like biscuits — better with shortening. Shorter is (most often) more powerful. You almost never need, for instance, the word “that”…or adverbs…or most adjectives… And, yes, I do fully understand just how much of a hypocrite I am with this rule! Hey, I’ve mentioned more than once just how little editing I do on these posts…

3) Try alternatives — if a scene feels awkward or forced, try something different. A different tone, a different tense or structure, a different something. My favorite trick here is to write the damned thing from a totally different POV. Even if I never use that alternative, it makes me think about the scene in a completely different way, and (most of the time) gets me over that hump of “awkwardness.”

4) Don’t be afraid of your characters — let them speak to you, let them call their own shots from time to time. Far too many writers out there are slaves to their plot. X has to happen, in their world, because, well, it’s part of the oh-so-holy-plot…even if X is completely wrong for the character(s) in question. In the end, you’ll find that letting your characters make their own choices makes them deeper and more real. Of course, it also means that the lure of letting them call the shots just gets worse and worse as you get the deeper into your story…but that’s a good problem to have, not a defect.

5) Let go your conscious self — yes, I’m quoting Obi Wan Kenobi, dammit. He’s freaking Obi Wan, and I can quote him if I want to! Stop worrying about the details, stop worrying about what others will think, stop worrying about the real world, and let yourself go. Immerse yourself in what you’re writing. You had a vision and an idea when you came up with your story, and you have to let that idea (and the tone/feeling of it) run through everything you do. You’re a writer, dammit, so be a writer, not just someone trying to write. If you don’t believe in yourself and your idea enough to truly let yourself go, why the hell are you writing it?