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!”

Microfiction: “A Good Nap, Ruined”

Okay, so this one is far more the side of pointless whimsy than emotion and meaning, but sometimes you just gotta go with the flow…

”A Good Nap, Ruined”

The meal was exactly what he wanted…what he needed.  Oh, it had been far too much work to get it all ready — not to mention the godawful mess it had left that he was pretty sure would never come clean — but sometimes you just had to spoil yourself.  Others he knew, they preferred to always eat what was neat and easy, but where was the fun and satisfaction in that?

 A nap, he wanted.  An hour or two just to let the summer sun and that big meal work their magic on him.  There had been a lot of walking that morning; a lot of clambering over downed trees, a lot of hills and valleys, a lot of wandering and exploring in that special place.

His nap, however, just would not come.  There was too much noise, too much activity.  What the hell happening over there?  Naps were the best part of the day, and now his was being ruined by the thoughtless and careless.

A stretch and a curse, then, and a pause for a last bite from the scattered remains of his lunch, then he began to walk, and to investigate.

Shit, more noise…yelling and chaos, now.

Drowsiness turned to irritation, and to impatience, and he began to yell at the rude bastards who wouldn’t let him relax, who wouldn’t afford him the simple courtesy of some peace and quiet.

The one in the flowered dress — the big one who looked so soft and sweet — turned to the one next to her, asked, “Can’t you stop him eating that?  It was just a baby!”

The other, the one in green, just shook his head, even as he continued to stare, “Bears have to eat, too.”

Versimilitude and You

We’ve all read books and stories where the author…umm…just kinda made stuff up.

My favorite example of that kind of thing is a story I read many years ago that was ostensibly set in Samarkhand.  Now, I’ve never actually been to Samarkhand, but (quite obviously) neither had the writer.  And that ruined the story for me.

Hell, an even better example came from an interview I once read with a former astronaut.  We all think about the space shuttle and the space station in certain ways, as clean and high-tech and aspirational-as-hell.  Basically, thanks to NASA’s quite capable PR flacks, we think of those things in terms of Star Trek’s perfect-world bullshit.  In this interview, however, the all-too-honest astronaut in question — when asked to describe what life was really like aboard an orbiting shuttle — answered, “After a couple of days, it smells like a bus station bathroom…”

I defy you to find anyone who has NOT lived in cramped, sealed quarters like that to come up with such an observation.

In a similar vein, I once — as part of an oral history interview — asked a WW2 USN veteran about everyday life aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.  What was the first thing he thought of, I asked, as he looked at a picture of his old ship?

“The smell,” he answered, with no hesitation.  “We couldn’t produce enough fresh water for showers, and that was in the days before deodorant…”

Oh hell yeah.  As much as we writers like to fake-it-‘til-you-make-it, there is absolutely no substitute for real-world experience and knowledge.  Hell, I still remember — and use as writing inspiration — my ex-Marine brother’s description of the “3-hole rule”* for taking a shit in the field in the Middle East.

*You really don’t want to know the details…

“Wait a second,” I hear you cry, “ don’t you write sci-fi and fantasy?  Who the hell are you to talk about ‘versimilitude’ and the whole ‘write what you know’ thing?!”

Well, shit…here just a few things I think about when I write:

Can you write about carrying & firing a gun if you’ve never so much as handled one?

How ‘bout a sword?

Hacking someone’s bank account?

Living homeless and hopeless amidst a world of plenty?

Walking twenty to thirty miles a day for weeks on end?

Getting stabbed or shot?

Betting everything you have/own on the flip of coin?

The smell & feel of the untracked wilds?

When I can, I answer those questions myself.  I have, indeed, carried a (legally) concealed pistol for days on end, so I know what that feels like.*  I do, in fact, own a sword…if I’m not nuts enough to wear it on the street, I have at least walked around the house wearing it.  Tripped over the stupid thing, too.

*Relaxing in a chair, by the way, sucks donkey balls when said weapon is digging into your damned kidney…I’ll take a shoulder holster every single day of the week, and twice on Sundays…

When I don’t know the truth — when I can’t know — I talk to those who do.  I have been attacked with a knife — don’t ask! — but I’ve never so much as had a gun pointed at me, let alone have I been shot at.  I do, however, have friends and relatives who have experienced that “side” of life…

I’ve never hacked an account — I’ve never actually hacked anything — but before I started writing Connor’s story, I took the time to find and talk to those who have.  In much the same way, in fact, that I spent several months getting to know the homeless street-kids who haunted some of Northern Colorado’s most well-known public spaces before I started writing.

I can, of course, tell you what it feels like to walk terrain untrodden for years, or even for decades.  I can tell you what a grizzly smells like, and how it feels to have a predator “interested” in you for several miles…

43146D41-6026-4050-81CB-1B39F154598BWrite what you know, they say.  And they kinda have a point…

Wait…what?  You don’t know the politics of a medieval kingdom?  Or the internecine struggles of a modern secret society?  You don’t personally know the dynamics of high society, or the struggles and sacrifices of a professional athlete?

If you don’t know, you talk to those who do.  You learn from those who do.  And, when you get right down to it, you use what you do know: you take modern politics and society and culture  and experiences and throw over them whatever concealing shroud your story requires…  

Holy crap, do you think “King Lear” was really about an aging king and his feuding daughters?!?!

Do you really think “Lord of the Rings” was about a couple of hobbits and an evil demi-god?  That “Moby Dick” was about some random dude’s obsession with an albino whale?  That “La Morte d’Arthur” was about some aquatic tart giving a glorified letter opener to a horny adolescent?

Crap, not even the freaking “Tale of Genji”* was about what it purports to be about.

*The oldest extant novel in the world, by the way…

Look, we’re writers…we get to make shit up.

Hell, that’s half the fun of being a writer!

But — and this is the big, inevitable BUT — but, what you make up has to be significant.  It has to mean something, both to you and to the reader.

Oh…and you damned well better have at least some kind of reality behind what you make up!  You don’t have to get shot to write your story, but if you don’t at least go down to the VFW and buy a few drinks for those who do know, then it might be time to consider a new calling…