Raise A Glass To All The Ghosts

I’m a Christmas guy. I love Christmas. I do the music, I decorate where I live, I even have a Santa hat and an ugly Christmas sweater (actually, it’s a hockey jersey made to look like a sweater).

This really is the most wonderful time of year.

Except for New Years.

New Years Eve and I have a tense relationship. Actually, it’s pretty much an abusive relationship…NYE has beat the shit out of me in the past, so nowadays I go all passive-aggressive and drink myself into stupor in order to strike back.

Starting from easiest to hardest:

1) I don’t do nostalgia – looks back at the year, and at years before, are generally either (a) annoying or (b) depressing, and I don’t need either one of those.

2) Nowadays I hate crowds, and the best New Years’ parties are pretty crowded. That’s how I know I’m not a misogynist or a racist or any other -ist: I hate everyone equally (and, yes, that’s a joke for anyone who is sarcasm impaired).

3) Oz got his start on one particular New Years Eve. My first experience with suicide came when one of my best friends committed suicide on NYE. Mike certainly wasn’t the last, but he was the first, and that night changed me – the world was no longer a safe, happy and comfortable place. There is a lot of Mike (and 2 others) in Oz…

So, while you’re out celebrating and laughing, raise a glass and offer a silent toast to Oz and all the other ghosts…he is, after all, my stand-in for all of the helpless, broken kids who killed themselves because they thought there was nothing more to life than pain and despair and loneliness.

Do I Really Have To Check All The Boxes?

There is a growing “thing” in publishing right now. Well, actually, it goes back a few years, but it has been receiving extra attention and energy recently. That “thing” is protagonists and characters with no purpose other than to represent certain groups.

Dictating that a character represent a specific race or gender or sexuality, or any other thing, solely for the purpose of being that thing seems silly, if not counterproductive pandering.  It is basically creating a character just to check a box and ensure you fit a narrow perception of people and reality driven by some vague “mandate” about symbolic diversity.

It is not – or at least should not be – of much value to create a character solely to be a gay character, for example, then figure out how to fit them into the story. Characters have to be themselves. A character should be just that: a character first (who and what they are within the story), and only then happen to be gay, or black, or…

I know that sounds like sophistry, but semantics are important, as is emphasis. I did not create or write Oz, for instance, as a message character (well, not that specific message). He was created as the only point of stability and warmth in Connor’s life…he was best friend and confidant first, and only after that was he gay. Now, as I worked through the story, his sexuality became a major subtext  for both his character and for Connor’s, but it was an outgrowth of the character himself, not an effort on my part to impose something on the two boys*.

*I will say, Oz’s unrequited love for Connor was an important part of the initial story idea, but is taking on even more meaning and significance as I work on the sequel…there are all kinds of parallels with Oz as Connor begins his own struggle with unrequited love.

Another example: Nat, for her part, is black. She is not, however, specifically a black love interest…she is the girl Connor targets, then falls in love with, and she just happens to be black (and, yes, I see a young Gina Torres when I think of her).

See the difference in those two examples? Substance over symbolism. Or am I worrying about angels and the heads of pins?

Up to this point I have been talking mostly esoterics, about how things are portrayed and emphasized. Everything good, so far, no problem. Where things do become a problem for me is with artificial and shallow creations like the “Bechdel Test” or the “Mako Mori Test”. Those things, and their ilk, take worthwhile discussions and turn them into shallow and misguided gatekeepers.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think strong female characters are needed, and there are a million stories still to be told*. But to artificially judge a work on just that as an isolated criteria? That’s nuts.  You can tell me all you want that Lord of the Rings is misogynistic and racist and I’m still gonna think you’re insane.

*Hell, English history alone provides examples of incredibly strong woman worth stories of their own: Baodicea, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Margaret Beaufort, Margaret of Anjou…just to name a few.

Again, a real world example: my own stories (currently) are from the sole POV of a teen-age street kid. The things that happen, and what is noted and described, are very specifically what are important to Connor himself. As a rule of thumb, a seventeen year old boy with serious intimacy issues and a drug/alcohol problem is not a particularly good vehicle for communicating anything other than his own personal shit. Not and be true to the character, anyway.

That, by the way, is not to excuse or dodge the fact that I did not write Nat to be as strong or as real as she should have been.  And, yes, I am fixing that in Silence.

Wrath, by the way, fails both of those artificial tests. It is, however, still a story that is very serious about communicating (or attempting to, at any rate) the very real issues of exploitation, inequality and despair…and, ultimately, suicide.

As a writer you very much can – and I argue, should – leave aside all the box-checking and agenda items, and just write the damn story you want to write…and that your characters demand.

Hamsters on a Wheel

I think the Brits have it right with Boxing Day. They milk an extra day out of Christmas, and we get stuck with…Monday.

*sigh*

There should be some kind of rule against Christmas falling on a Sunday, it just makes everything weird!

I walk into my favorite coffee place this morning and all the normal faces are there. The two cops, the lawyer with an office down the way, the landscaper, the retired lady, the CPR instructors…and a few others.  Everyone is there, and everyone (mostly) is getting ready to trudge in to their respective office/place-of-work wearing identical looks of sour dissatisfaction.

Including me, which is why you’re getting a random off-the-top-of-my-head post today. Usually I give the posts a minute or two of thought before I write them, but nope…not today.

You can’t even blame miserly and mean employers (for the most part), as the bulk of these folks work for themselves.

So why is everyone out and headed for the office on a 12-degree morning the day after Christmas? Why, for that matter, am I out on this self-same morning?

Good question.

We here in the US need to slow down, learn to relax a bit. The biggest contribution the Italians have made to world culture – bigger than Rome, bigger than the Renaissance, bigger even than Tuscany – is la dolce far niente. The sweetness of doing nothing.

That might make things, err, challenging when you need a train from Naples to Rome, but on the day after Christmas? Have some olives and bread and a glass of wine. Watch some football (of whatever flavor you prefer: American or rest-of-the-world)…play with your (grand)kids’ toys…and, most importantly, RELAX.

The world will still be there tomorrow, trust me.

And if it’s not there tomorrow? At least your last day was worthwhile.

What Does Mordor Smell Like?

Trying to get a blog post jotted down early. There is zero chance of me actually sitting down to write one on Friday morning, so if I don’t do it now it ain’t getting done. Plus, I have to do my Palahniuk-hour-of-writing today…I have no real intention of actually writing or working*, so the blog post will have to do for now.

*Saying that, of course, means I will probably spend four or five hours writing furiously…

I know I said I was doing all the character shit in order to get ready to actually, you know, write but I got sidetracked yesterday by working on the setting. That’s no bad thing, by the way. Your setting has to be real to you: you have to be able to see it, to smell it, to feel it. If you can’t do that inside your own mind, what do you think is going to happen with your readers?

If your story takes place somewhere in the real world, that means you have to go there. You have to walk the streets/paths, smell the air, feel the pulse… One of those ghosts I have fluttering around is a story set in Prague. Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in Prague – I know that city very well. But if and when I start writing that story, I will have to return to Czech so I can re-immerse myself in the setting.

That is how you feel what you write, how you see and smell what your character is experiencing. If your setting isn’t real to you, it will be immediately apparent in your words: I once read a book set in medieval Samarkhand and it was very apparent the author had never been anywhere near the place. Hell, it read like his experience of the setting came from reading books and looking at pictures. That ruined the story for me.

On the flip side, I highly recommend you go read Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series. The city is very, very real in her books, and it is obvious just how much time she spent in Rome getting the feeling right.

Now, in my own stuff, I am not using “real” locations, I’m making shit up*. Hell, eight of the ten(ish) stories floating in the back of my mind involve making shit up. img_0019That doesn’t mean the setting can be cheap and pro forma. I refuse to write a story with a Star Trek setting of cardboard walls and styrofoam rocks. If it’s not real to me, it won’t be to anyone else either…

*One of the best comments ever on writing sci-fi came from John Scalzi: “They say write what you know. I write what no one knows.”

One trick I use is to base my characters’ surroundings on real world locales. Admittedly, that was kinda hard for dockside – how many places do you know where 60,000 people live crammed into cargo holds? – but that setting was very much influenced by the back alleys and tight spaces of certain real cities and countries.

For Silence I need a setting that emphasizes the tone and feeling I intend to carry through the story. Finding that right feeling is harder than you’d think*, but I finally have it nailed down. Cold, stark, desolate…an altogether uncomfortable world that exists only to make a small group of people very rich.

*In practical terms, by the time the prep work is done, I will have written something on the order of 10,000-12,000 words just on the physical details of the setting, and the same amount again on the cultural and linguistic side of things.

I love where this is leading me…mostly because Connor is gonna hate it. Hey, remember, it is his own fault: he made me write this damn story!