Watchin’ Cartoons

I’m doing some traveling later this year.  After a few years of staying put here in the US, I’m finally heading back to Europe for a couple of weeks.

Oh my, have I missed that kind of travel.  Don’t get me wrong, I love all the hiking and exploring I do in Yellowstone and the Rockies, but that only scratches one particular kind of itch.  

Left unscratched — for far too long, by my lights — is another itch, one just as strong for me: the itch to explore different cultures and languages, different histories and dynamics.  The itch, when you get right down to it, for the learning and experience that comes only with immersing yourself in someone else’s backyard.

Now, I’m not traveling alone this time, so my usual low-to-the-ground, full-immersion kind of trip isn’t really on the agenda, but still I’ll sneak in some aimless wandering and exploring.

So, I put all that intro in there to say that I’m starting to think about — and brush up on — my old travel and exploration skills.  Not least among those skills, of course, is language.  Sadly, fluency in a foreign language is a (very) perishable skill.  Of the five in which I’m fluent, I’ve really only used two with any regularity in the last few years…and French ain’t one of those.

I won’t be in France for terribly long — it’s just the first chapter of the trip — but I am not going to  stumble around, bumbling just to say please and thank you.  I used to be fluent at the everyday-level, goddammit!

So why, I hear you ask, did I mention watching cartoons in the title?  For the language lessons, of course!

Look, one of the first bits of advice I give people who ask about travel and immersion is to listen to kids.  Young kids — three-, four- and five-year-olds — are a great primer for picking up the basics of a language you don’t know.  Since they’re just learning the language, they speak in simple sentences, over-enunciate their words, and (over)use context and non-verbal communication to convey meaning.  Most importantly, their parent/care-giver will often correct and teach them on the fly.

Hooray, free language-lessons while you’re sipping your coffee!

When you’re past that point, however…  When you’re more familiar and capable with a language…  Kids are still your friends, as is TV.teletubbies-10-ft-tall

I learned basic Czech by watching the freaking TeleTubbies every morning at breakfast.  A few days of that, and a willingness to look and sound like an idiot while I tried to talk to people, and the snowball of comprehension and understanding turned into an avalanche.

With French, I don’t need to be that basic, thank God.  I do, however, need to re-immerse myself enough to understand the language when it’s spoken rapid-fire.  I also need to work on the vocab and slang that textbooks and old copies of French literature just won’t teach.

foto-de-capaAnd so here I sit, watching French cartoons and shows for the middle- and high-school crowd.  The subtitles have been on for the first couple of weeks to give me a “safety net” of sorts, but that is about to change.  Once I can get through a few more episodes of Miraculous without needing to pause and re-listen to every other line, it’ll be time to graduate — once again — into French cinema…

New York Rangers v Montreal Canadiens - Game OneDo you have any idea just how much I’m looking forward to re-watching Luc Besson and Louis Malle without cheating?  And don’t even get me started on watching Montreal games with the French* play-by-play on!

*I know, I know — Quebec ain’t France.  Even though I learned formal Parisian French in school, I learned true day-to-day speaking among the Quebecois.  In Spain folks made fun of me for speaking “Mexican,” and I didn’t give a damn…so the French will just have to live with the bad linguistic habits I picked up here in North America.  To those who like to bitch about stuff like that, all I have to say to is, get over it!  Harrumph.

Kill Your Darlings

I’ve written professionally for years.  I started in video games, then added naval history, and brewing, and grew from there.

I know I can write because, well, I have.  But…


I’m sorry, but is there a freaking writer out there — beyond the dozen or so who are the “top shelf” folks — who doesn’t question themselves from time to time?

Look, I go back through the old posts on this blog from time to time, if only to reacquaint myself with the ground I’ve covered already.  I re-read those old posts and I can’t help but think, “just how fucking drunk was I?”

But not all the time.

Sometimes, I go back and re-read those words and I think, “Shit…I’m not bad at this, am I?”

Let’s be honest, until you’re selling 100,000 copies a book, no one is going to tell you that you can write.  Until you’re making someone else millions in profit, you’re just a hack.  Until then, the only barometer you have is…you.

Beta-readers don’t count.  Family and friends don’t count.  Hell, the writing-group you go to every Wednesday doesn’t count, either.  No, the only thing that counts is that inner critic that we all (should) have.  If you are not your own biggest critic, by the way, you’re doing it wrong.

If you don’t read the old sentences and wince at some of the choices you made about words and order…

If you don’t read the old scenes and wince at some of the choices you made about description and exposition…

If you don’t read the old stories you wrote and wince at some of the choices you made about plot and characterization…

If you don’t see the flaws and problems in your own work, that does NOT mean it’s perfect!  It just means you need to go back to square one and start learning again to be a reader.

As I mentioned before, I tried watching the new Lost in Space.  I wanted to love it, I really did, but I just couldn’t.  Why not?  Not because of the visuals, they were excellent.  Nor was it because of the production values, they were world-class.  No, I couldn’t love it because the writing flat-out sucked.  The characterization and plotting were elementary-school level, and the series betrayed the very characters it wanted to represent.

If I can see the flaws in the stories I read (and watch), I better damned well be able to see them in those I write.

And that’s the hard part…

Look, I don’t know how the rest of the writer-ish universe does it, but for me to really write — I mean really write — I have to fall in love with my material.  My characters have to be real to me; they have to speak, and make their own demands on me…and I have to listen to them.

That sounds great.  It sounds like the Writing 101 Q & A session we all wish we had heard when we were starting out.  What it does not sound like is reality…

Oh, don’t get me wrong, my major characters ARE real to me.  Connor and Oz still speak to me, in the same way that Finn and Ilo are beginning to.  The problem isn’t hearing the characters, just as it isn’t understanding them (and their motivations).  No, the problem is something I mention so often: falling in love.

I fell in love with Connor and Oz before I was even a quarter of the way through Somewhere Peaceful.  I’m falling in love with Finn and Ilo even as I’m working on the initial planning and plotting…

Just as happens so often when you fall for a new lover, falling in love with a character/story makes you stupid.  It blinds you to their flaws and faults…and to the flaws and faults in your story.

Stephen King famously advised, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, kill your darlings.”

He wasn’t talking about killing characters — well, not just about killing characters — he was talking about all those elements of a story that just don’t work, no matter how attached to them you may be.  You may love a certain scene, event or idea — it may be your darling — but if It doesn’t work, it has to die.

And, sadly, only you can truly be the killer of your darlings.

You train yourself to be that killer by finding other writers’ darlings; you learn to find them in the works you already love even more than in the works you don’t.  You find the darlings that should have died in Tolkien and Jordan…you find them in Tolstoy and Dickens…you find them in Lucas and Kubrick…you find them, even, in that dang love poem your mom wrote to your dad when they were young…

If you can’t learn to kill your darlings, who the hell will?

New Year’s Nostalgic Eve

Okay, so I’ve mentioned before — oh so many times before — just how much I hate the “sin” of nostalgia.  Looking back, for me, is no road I ever want to take.

That being said…

That being said, the most dangerous minefield in the world for me right now lies in the various streaming services.  Oh, the danger is not physical, no more than it is political, social or even cultural.  No, the danger is for worse than that — the danger is nostalgic.

I am, I should probably mention, far more than hip-deep in that particular minefield at this particular moment.

I gave up cable and satellite TV because I was tired of wasting time watching shit I didn’t particularly want to watch.  “No,” I said to myself, “it’d be much better to stream and watch just those shows I want to spend time on.”

That thought sounds great on the surface.  Hell, it sounds like exactly what I want…

Then I start browsing the catalogs for various services.  Then I fall into the twin minefields of nostalgia and memory.  Then I start exploring all that with which I grew up…

Don’t get me wrong, I want and like to try the new and unique, but there is always the pull of the old and familiar.

“Wait a damned second!  Just what the hell are you talking about?” I hear you cry.

Star Trek (the original series, thank you very much!), The Twilight Zone, Battlestar Galactica, Robotech, Star Wars, BladeRunner, and…well…Lost in Space.

Yeah, yeah, I admit it: I (kinda) grew up on Lost in Space.  Crap, even as a kid, watching the show a couple of decades and more after it originally aired, I knew it was cheesy schlock.  I knew that, and still I watched it every Saturday morning.  Still I wished I was Will Robinson…

Okay, so that still doesn’t answer your cry.  Fine.  Here goes the answer, here is why I’m talking about this — I sat down tonight to stream something.  I checked out my usual options and nothing struck me, so I finally dusted off my old NetFlix subscription to check out what they had going.D49D5096-1FAC-42FE-B870-323E91CFD336

Danger, Will Robinson!

Crap, as soon as I saw NetFlix had a take on that old series, I had no choice but to renew.  I certainly had no choice in what I was going to watch tonight!*

*”Wait, why aren’t are you going out to live it up on New Year’s Eve?!”  Nope.  Not anymore, not for me.  Too much memory, too much pain.  I either watch TV, or I get bitterly, painfully, intentionally not-gonna-function-tomorrow drunk.  Since there’s no middle ground for me on New Year’s Eve, I have lately tended to go with the TV option…

I don’t even know if this particular version of that old show is any good; all I know is that it scratches an itch I didn’t even know I had.  And, even if the new Will Robinson fails, there still is Stranger Things to kick me in the nostalgia gland…D3DAD449-C104-43D0-B0DD-E1120154A44C

Happy Freaking New Year, Will Robinson!!

Unquiet Words

Do you ever get cocky?

Ever know that something won’t work, but still think you can overcome the universe and make it work for you?

That’s pretty much me right now.

Look, I’ve talked before about how I need life and activity around me to write.  I’ve talked about the sense of release, the sense of freedom, that comes with writing in coffee shops and taprooms.  To write — I mean really write — I have to be out.  And that’s great, as far as it goes.  But sometimes…

But sometimes you’re at home, and the urge hits you.  Sometimes you’re somewhere quiet and peaceful and alone, and the ideas start to come.  That’s when my iron-clad rule #1* can become a problem.

*You always write it, right freaking then.

Now, for most writers a place of quiet, peaceful serenity is probably the best place in the world for the creative process.  Unfortunately, I’m not most writers.  Hell, we established that when I described the fact that I couldn’t write a story in linear order if you held a gun to my head.  I can’t write the scenes in the order they appear, and I can’t write when it’s peaceful and quiet.AF488EBD-3EAC-4D16-942B-85A0EEA3E32F

Yeah, yeah, I know…I’m weird.  You’re just now figuring that out?

So, here I am, sitting at home and trying to put my thoughts and ideas into words.  In the peace and quiet.  And it just ain’t working.

Oh, I can get words onto the page, but they…uhh…they kinda suck.  Do you have any idea at all just how frustrating that is, by the way?  How frustrating to know, as soon as you type them, that the words you’re putting down are a waste of time and effort?  That you’re just going to delete them later?1A69DA5C-BF5D-4E3D-8042-98F1A0E64B9A

Honestly, I feel like I’m in detention, being to forced to write lines over and over.

Screw it, I’m not working today.  I think I’ll just head over to the bar for a beer and a thousand words…

Oh, the crosses I bear to be a writer.  But, hey, I’m doing it so you don’t have to.  Yeah, that’s it!

See, I’m not just a writer, I’m a giver…