Life Lessons

There’s always something to learn, always wisdom you have not yet acquired.  Wisdom that, over my life, includes things like: you’re never the toughest guy in the room, there’s always a catch, and — my personal favorite — tequila does not make you more attractive.

It’s always good when you can add to that accumulated wisdom.  That’s what growing and learning is all about, isn’t it?

Uhh…

Not so much, sometimes.  Not when you’re five miles into your hike … not when you’re four miles off the nearest trail … not when you’re in the most active grizzly habitat within 500 miles … not when you finally figure out that maybe having the extra-spicy curry last night wasn’t the best idea in the world…

Have you ever tried to keep your eyes and ears peeled for a wandering grizzly when your, err, “guard” is down?

Write what you know, they say.  That unfortunately is the kind of thing I know.

Ahem.

On a more cheerful — and totally unrelated! — note, a German court decided the other day that a hangover officially qualifies as an illness.  You gotta love the Germans!  Now if only that ruling had been around when I was young, I wouldn’t have had to lie to my bosses quite so often…

img_0011Not that I would ever do that.  Of course not.  I would never spend the night with friends drinking beer and scotch in the back of a brewery.  Just like I would never call in to work the next morning with “food poisoning.”  Just what kind of slacker do you think I am, anyway?!

There are, of course, plenty of writing-centered life lessons to learn, as well.  I’m not going to put together a big list of those for this post, mostly because I want to focus on one in particular: you can never make everyone happy.

If you try, by the way, you will ruin not just your story but yourself, too.

Now, I have to give that little writing lesson some context, I suppose.  You absolutely do have to keep your intended audience in mind when you write.  Back when I used to train and teach salespeople, one of the things I stressed was always remaining focused on who and what was your victim…err, client.  If you thought only about what you needed as a salesperson, you were guaranteed to fail.

You wouldn’t write about drugs and despair and nihilism if your intended audience was my father…  (Less Than Zero)

You wouldn’t write about violence and an unhealthy urge to belong if your intended audience was pre-schoolers…  (Fight Club)

You wouldn’t write about suffering and death and mass murder if your intended audience was middle and high schoolers…  (The Boy In The Striped Pajamas)

Uhh…

Here’s the thing, that little nugget of writing “wisdom” I mentioned above?  It applies to us writers…but only to an extent.  There was a great quote from S.E. Hinton a while back.  A high school girl at a Q&A event stood up and told her, “I got suspended for reading The Outsiders in class.”

Hinton looked back and gave her a smile, “I got the same thing for writing it in class.”

The Outsiders gets attacked — still! — on a regular basis for being “inappropriate” and “immoral” and for breaking all the then-current rules of convention and society.  It should never have worked, according to the experts of the day.  No one at the time thought kids were capable of reading something like that without turning into criminals and thugs.

It is also one of the greatest examples of a writer who truly did know her audience — far, far better than did the “experts” of the day.

Hinton didn’t worry about making everyone happy, she worried about making herself — and her audience, her real audience — happy.  And it kinda worked out okay…

On the other hand, when a writer crosses the fine — not to mention hard-to-detect — line between knowing their audience and pandering to them, they have abandoned all hope of creating a story that matters.  Worse still is when a writer panders not to their audience, but to the conventions and mores of, well, any of the closed, insular little worlds into which our society has split.

There are all kinds of “tests” out there for creative works; progressive tests, conservative tests, religious tests, secular tests, pacifist tests, violent tests…  Shit, there are even freaking vegan and omnivore tests!  When you are more worried about “passing” those tests than about writing your story, you have fallen into pandering.

Similarly, when you are more worried about keeping your audience “happy” than writing your story, you are equally pandering.

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas didn’t seek to keep the audience happy, it sought to make them uncomfortable as hell.  It sought to bring education and enlightenment through tears.  Just as, with The Outsiders, Hinton didn’t worry about making anyone happy, she sought only to tell the story that was so clear in her mind.

F77E4C05-C9E1-4393-A7E1-E4B670582209One of my all-time favorite movies is Au Revoir, Les Enfants.  Malle didn’t worry about his audience, or his producers, or the studios…he told his story, his coming-of-age autobiography.  And its last scene, the one people thought was “too sad” and “too depressing”, is what will truly stick with you.  It is that final image — that final, screw-you-I’m-doing-it-my-way image — that moves the film from “very good” to “truly great”.

*By the way, I once mentioned the concept of “story creep”…of the impulse to bring in thoughts and ideas that have nothing to do with the actual story at hand.  The same 72FFF94E-A47B-4DF8-8201-6C1D0B25C56Bproblem applies to this blog.  Thinking about the end of “Au Revoir” starts my squirrel-driven mind going down just all kinds of rabbit trails, especially about how to end a story or film with a truly impactful moment.  Without going too far off-point, or too deeply into the weeds, all I will say is if you want to know how to end a story, watch the brilliant “Ivan’s Childhood.”  Tarkovsky was a freaking genius.

I wish that lesson were easier for us writers to learn, not to mention to hold to.  Hell, I wish the industry itself were at all friendly to the concept.  But we struggle with it, and the industry is not.  All of the dynamics, in fact, push us to write our stories for others…to try to make everyone happy, except for ourselves.

We are not actors, to tell someone else’s story.

We are not pop singers, to perform someone else’s music.

We are writers, dammit.  If you can’t tell your own story — the story you want to create — what’s the freaking point?

90 Days…And A Bit More

The last snow here in Yellowstone came on June 22nd, the summer solstice.

CB47650C-F077-48B3-8517-47E9EC463940Summer has not yet officially ended, but the first snow has come already…on September 21st.  That’s right, two days before the official end of summer.  Not even ninety days, and the snows are here again.

Yep, that’s about right for this place: three months of summer, and nine of winter.

It’s a good thing I like the cold.  Hell, it’s even better that I like hiking in the cold!  The animals are out this time of year, you see, eating like mad to get ready for winter.  The only other period that comes even close to this is the early spring, when they are again eating like mad to recover from the winter.

Two days ago I was out on a favorite trail of mine, early in the morning.  Within the first mile I saw a wolf pack stalking an elk herd, and a grizzly circling a dying bison.  Throw in the eagle I saw as well and I hit the freaking jackpot within 20 minutes of setting out!

“But why are you going up there again?!” I was asked six months ago.

Gee, I wonder…

Err…that’s why I’m staying, too.

Yep, that’s right, I gave in and signed up to stay through the winter.  Through temperatures of 20-30 degrees below zero (that’s in Fahrenheit, in Celsius it translates to … err … umm … freaking COLD).  Through 20+ feet of snow on the ground.  Through no possible road travel.  Through no one around but a few fellow lunatics…

I’m gonna love it.  But…

But…

But what about the writing?

Ahem.8B440182-2AE3-4395-B6F6-5D762FF269FE

I’m sanguine.

Ish.

Hey, my productivity can’t get any lower than the last six months…

…can it?

The good news, of course, is that I’ll be up here — still mostly out of contact and 8A5B492A-F26A-4432-B7FF-9A484642E648away from it all — as the current political climate gets nothing but nuttier as the election comes ever closer.  Like the tramp of sweet, cute little lizard, it comes ever closer…

Ahh, a special thank you to Ray Bradbury for the ultimate expression of how I feel about the coming election: something wicked this way comes, indeed!

This way comes the carnival of insults and bitterness…28C1D836-6628-469A-87BF-62D3203305B2

The carnival of partisan rancor and lies…

The carnival of knee-jerk hate and intolerance…

The carnival of everything that’s wrong with us as a nation…

Yeah, I’ll take the starving bears and wolves, thank you very much.

Gin & Tonic & Writing Thoughts…

A day-off, a nice (if far too short) hike, and a gin & tonic at my elbow…

Ahh, it’s the little things that define a good life!

Just a few random thoughts for this post, mostly because I haven’t developed any of them enough to flesh out into a full post of their own.

I once mentioned, a couple of years back, that it took a certain mindset and focus for me to write consistently and well.  I had, I mentioned way back in that old post, finally become “good” at putting myself into that proper frame of mind.

Err…umm…well…

That doesn’t always apply, as it turns out.

Oh, everything works great when I am in a regular rhythm of writing; when I’m living & working a life that is predictable and even.  It doesn’t work so great, on the other hand, when I’m up here in Yellowstone.  I never know what the heck I’m going to do from day to day, so how can I get into a regular writing rhythm?

That particular problem sucks, and I’m pissed at myself for low productivity, but would I change anything?  Would I give up the things I get to see and do up here?

Oh hell no.

This blog started life as my attempt to “live blog” the process of conceiving and writing a novel.  That concept, of course, didn’t last more than the first few weeks.  I 1B634BD3-C987-46FB-9C24-801F46481272have just far too many squirrel-moments when I’m working on these (stream of consciousness) posts to stick to any kind of plan.  That doesn’t stop me from talking about writing, however.

Kinda like now…

I’ve been working — a bit — on trying to create the background and basis for a new story series.  I mention this because a friend up here asked me about writing.  “How do you,” he asked, “start writing a story?”  He wants to try his hand at it, you see, and he was hoping there was some secret, easy-to-use, insert-tab-A-into-slot-B answer…

Here’s news: there ain’t.

I tried to explain to him just how I do things, but I didn’t get it across very well.  My attempted explanation didn’t succeed because, well, I don’t usually think about the process intellectually enough to actually explain it.  So, after that conversation, I tried to think about it…and not for the first time, I might add.  I had to step back and think not about Connor & Oz and how I write their stories — not only am I too close to them, but they are also too well defined in my mind — but rather about this (potential) new series…

Now, David Eddings came up with the Belgariad and that universe based on a map he drew as a kid…

Raymond Feist came up with the Magician series and universe based on a role-playing game he had written and DMed in college…

Tolkien came up with The Hobbit in the trenches of WW One…

Jordan came up with the original idea for the Wheel of Time based on his return from Vietnam and re-acclimating to “normal” society…

So, for my friend Cody, here’s an attempt to clean up the (poor) answer I gave:

For me it’s the characters that drive the creation.  It’s always about the characters.

There are always characters floating around in the back of my mind, by the way.  There’s a huge cast in there, more than enough to fill several series…but they don’t always work and play well together.  Hell, they usually fight and scream and cause all sorts of havoc with each other…

But when they come clear…

When they start to crystallize as “people”…

Yeah, that’s when I start to move them from the back of my mind to the front.

I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: the ideas for Somewhere Peaceful, Silence and Flicker didn’t come first, the characters of Connor and Oz did…and they drove the stories.  Even before they had names, even before they “existed” in character sketches and background notes, they told me their stories…

The same thing is happening now.  I have two (main) characters who are becoming real to me, who are ready to tell their own stories.  They aren’t quite clear yet, I should add.  They’re still blurred and fuzzy, like they’re deep in the fog, but they’re moving towards me and becoming clearer with each step.  Only when the characters are clear, only when they are real, can I so much as start thinking about the plot that ties them together.

I know what these two are, and quite a bit about who, but that’s not enough.  Not by a long shot.  Oh, it’s enough to dream and imagine, but not enough to actually write a story.

This is where the…ahem…work starts.  I have to take these two characters — who have nothing really to do with each other — and bring them together into a compelling story.*  This is where the 3-4 months of planning and thinking, of writing and re-writing background pieces that will never see the light of day, comes in.  This is where the piles of discarded notes, and reams of deleted files, come in.

*It’s easier with Connor and Oz, by the way, since they were always conceived together…

This is also, unfortunately, where “feature creep” — or “plot creep,” in writing terms — begins to rear its ugly head.

“Hey, why not try and squeeze in this other story idea, too?”

Yeah, that generally doesn’t work out too well.  That’s where you start going off the rails and deep into the weeds.  That’s where you waste weeks of effort and time on crap that just doesn’t belong.

Not that I’ve ever done that.  No, sir, not me…

*sigh*

This conception process is also when you have to define yourself as a writer.  Is your story based on history, or something similarly extrinsic?  Or is it based on you, and what makes you you?  Are you a David Eddings and Raymond Feist?  Or a Robert Jordan and JRR Tolkien?  Do you want to write an admonitory fable, a la Haldeman’s The Forever War, or do you want to create something aspirational and hopeful, like Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama?  Hell, do you want to go completely off the reservation and write a philosophical/theological treatise like Herbert’s Jesus Incident?

I know where I come down, but I can only answer that question for myself.  Every writer — published or not, aspiring neophyte or best-seller — has to define for themselves just who they are as a creator, and why they write…

A final piece of this puzzle for me — a very, very personal, internal piece — is to find the right soundtrack.  Before I sit down to create the actual plot, I have to know the story’s feeling…and that means I have to have the right soundtrack and mood.  It means, when you get right down to it — as I’ve mentioned before — that I have to find that one song that defines the whole damned thing.

Once I have that song, I write the final scene…then it’s off to the races for the rest of the whole damned thing…

 

History For The Win

As much as I loathe the current state of US politics — and the civil war I think is currently slouching its way towards Bethlehem as a result of those politics — the political/history nerd in me gets just all sweaty and excited by the bullshit accompanying the UK’s weak, vacillating, and laughably inept “departure” from the EU…

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t take much to get me sweaty and excited…erm…umm…

Okay, moving on now: it also does not take much to get me to gleefully go back and re-visit various events and eras in history.  The fact that for the past three years the UK has managed to make a race for 7th-grade-class-president look competent, professional and — dare I say it? — enviably grown-up has just added to the sweaty excitement of that urge.

For a nation that prides itself on never really having been torn apart by a civil war, Britain has had a remarkable number of — ahem — civil wars.  As much as I want to turn to the War of the Roses for thoughts and examples, however — or even to the “Shipwreck” between Matilda and Stephen — there just is no way I can bypass Cromwell.  C’mon, the guy overthrew the freaking King, made Parliament supreme…then overthrew the very Parliament he had put in place!

There is a reason, by the way, why folks say there is no such thing as a “new” story.  It’s all been written before.  Well, hell, today’s corollary to that introduces the fact that there is no such thing as a fictional story, either.  No matter how bad the screw up, humanity has found a way to do EVERY stupid thing you can possibly imagine!

I’m sorry, Britain…but, God, do I love this shit…

Anyway, here is Cromwell’s lesson, his last speech to Parliament before shutting it down.  This is, I should add, appropriate for Britain and Brexit, yes, but also incredibly apt for the United States of today (it is also simply one of the most wonderfully vituperative pieces of spite you will ever read):

“It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice.

Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government.

Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess?

Ye have no more religion than my horse. Gold is your God. Which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?

Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defiled this sacred place, and turned the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices?

Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation. You were deputed here by the people to get grievances redressed, are yourselves become the greatest grievance.

Your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse this Augean stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings in this House; and which by God’s help, and the strength he has given me, I am now come to do.

I command ye therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place.

Go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.

In the name of God, go!”