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!

Different Languages, Different Visions

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela

Talking a bit (on Monday) about how I tried to keep the characters honest and likable, in spite of the dark themes, got me to thinking about setting and atmosphere. Especially the aspects of culture and language that are vital to how you illustrate your characters.

In Wrath I very intentionally chose a mix of languages and cultures for dockside that would create a sense of “other” and “alien” without resorting to, well, actual aliens. Using Japanese and Thai was a deliberate effort to distance the setting and characters from modern day America. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I actually speak Japanese (although I’m rusty as hell).

In Silence* things are more complicated. Considerably more complicated. This story is set on a planet, after all, not in the close confines of a dilapidated, aging station clinging to the very edge of a star system. And that planet, with its many, many times larger population (about 30 million), has three distinct cultural/linguistic groups with which I get to play. Did I forget to mention that I also have a passion and knack for languages and linguistics? Well, there, I just did. Oh yeah, and the slang glossary for this story is gonna be fucking huge.

*Screw it, I was gonna wait to reveal the new title until I was…you know…actually done, but I’ve mentioned it (in part) a few times now, so I might as well get it over with. The sequel is tentatively titled “The Silence That Never Comes”. The whats and whys of that title will have to wait, however, as I am just not in the mood to dive into all the symbolism and meaning behind it.

Now for the important question: why the hell am I making things so complicated? Wasn’t it hard enough to figure out what people were saying in Wrath, with just one (and a half, really) language for slang? Shou ga nai. That’s just the way it is, so deal with it.

I am a big believer that language and culture (and outlook) are inextricably linked. Language is fundamental to the human brain, and it helps to define everything. Oh yeah, and as a writer it is one hell of a tool to separate cultures/peoples in order to illustrate many of the things I want to emphasize and play up. Hey, at least I didn’t go full-Tolkien and make up my own damned languages. Never go full-Tolkien!img_0018

Silence is going to be very concerned with the differing “levels” of society, and the contrasts and similarities that define them. The language and culture that created each of those will play an important part in communicating their thought processes and cultural norms. As a small illustration: if you really want to understand the different dynamics of, say, France and Germany, you have to learn both French and German.  Trust me on that one; what each of those languages shows about how the cultures think and feel will open your eyes.

A final practical note: I speak a number of languages, but not nearly as many as I need to do what I want. Two of my new cultures I’ve got covered, but the third? Crap…now I have the added challenge of using (and “evolving”) the slang and cultural outlook of a language I don’t actually speak. And, no, Google Translate is not a legitimate option…

The Challenge of Broken Characters

I’m working my way through character background stuff and that got me to thinking about something. Well, that and a conversation I had with a friend about a bad book we both tried to read. That something is how to make your characters likable and interesting (and yes, those are two different things) while maintaining a dark and bitter tone.

Now, there are as many answers to that question as there are writers. The easy answer is: “whatever works for your characters and your style”. But that answer is a facile dodge, so let’s get a bit more specific…

In Wrath & Tears, and in the coming story, I start with a protagonist who – in all honesty – could be pretty damned unlikable. He is a drug addict, a con artist and a thief. He also combines a sense of bitter resentment and anger with all the callow bravado that only a seventeen year old can manage.

Harder yet, Wrath was as much about Oz as (if not more than) Connor, and he started from an even worse place: he was just as much a drug addict and liar as Connor, but was also trapped in the life of a young male prostitute that is even more uncomfortable than stealing and scamming. It’s easier to not talk about things like that, but they do happen…and they are who Oz is.

How do you make those two kids likable? Lovable, even? As a practical matter of storytelling, the end of Wrath is completely dependent on liking the two boys. If you don’t feel for and sympathize with them, the end is meaningless. If you do care…well…if I cried writing it, you better damn well cry reading it!

To me the answer was to use a couple of different of tactics. The first was to show the misery and squalor of the boys’ lives honestly, but to contrast it with the bonds of trust and care they shared. The snapshots of the friendship and intimacy of their lives gave them (I hope) a certain charm, and a human-ness that any challenging character needs to succeed*.

*There are books I’ve liked with/about unpleasant characters, but also ones I couldn’t stand. No offense to the author, but I think Thomas Covenant is one of the worst and most unpleasant characters ever written…and one of the very few protagonists I have ever despised. Raskolnikov, on the other hand, just plain worked for me.

The other side of that coin was an intentional dissonance between the boys and their circumstances. They brought out the best in each other in the worst of circumstances, even if neither would ever admit it. Their lives were terrible, but they weren’t alone…and that was what truly mattered to them (hence the repetition of the theme that “alone is worse”).

Another note of dissonance I tried to show comes through Connor’s thoughts/comments about there being no such thing as sympathy, selflessness or charity. Thoughts that came even as he was the recipient of several such acts (from Marie and Vin to Bloody Mary to Fadi, among others). Even more, Connor himself performs several such acts…he just always has an inner excuse – some ersatz “reason” – to shade the act as self-interested. He would never admit to doing good for the sake of, well, doing good. Of course not…he pretty much assumes there is no such thing as good. Exploring that concept is, by the way, what the new story is for!

Now, in Wrath I was able to write Connor with a certain sense of naivety and innocence (in spite of the darkness of his life), but those qualities are not available to me in this next story. Connor has seen too much – has lived too much – to ever be those again. He is, honestly, starting from a vastly worse place in Silence, and has a much higher hill to climb to regain the charm and goodness that are who he really is…

Something Wicked This Way Comes

I’m sitting in the coffee shop trying to mind my own business and get some work done when the folks at the table next to me manage to break through the (loud) music playing in my earbuds…

You’ve got a table with five folks well into their eighties…well beyond their eighties, actually. Nothing unusual in that – my preferred coffee place has a pretty good mix of customers. What is unusual is that this group is having a knockdown, drag-out argument about politics.

On one level I had to fight to keep from laughing: you had the tiniest little blue-haired woman I’ve ever seen getting into it with a retired-farmer type. And she’s giving him the business. I half-expected chairs to fly, and the pair to start a UFC match right in the middle of the floor.

On another level, however, it just adds to my ever-growing conviction that we’re fucked as a country (and as a world, but that’s another story/post). As someone who makes shit up on a daily basis – dark and depressing shit for the last couple of stories – it is unnerving when the real world proves just as bad as the world Connor inhabits*.

*Then again, that’s why I wrote his story as sci-fi: so I could draw out and illustrate many of the problems I see around me…and even more the ones that I see coming.

In the backstory for the universe Connor inhabits, I posit a multi-sided civil war tearing the US apart in the mid-2000’s. More and more, as time goes by, I am convinced that prediction may actually come true…and may even “beat” my prediction by a decade or two.

Please note – I am intentionally NOT discussing my own politics or beliefs. I am commenting on everything and everyone, not the “other” side.

A bit of my own backstory: I am a history geek. In specific, I have a degree in Roman History.  In even more detail, that degree is specifically on the transition from Roman Republic to the Empire.

I see all the worst elements of that period coming not just to mild fruition in the US, but growing in intensity and the negative passions of resentment, bitterness and rage. That does not bode well. Not for us as individuals, not for us as a nation, and not for the rest of the world.

I hate it when my direst predictions feel like measured and calculated forecasts rather than semi-idle speculation made up over pints of beer in an attempt to play around with just how much I can screw over my characters.

And, yes, the story I am currently writing – and even the ghosts of other ideas fluttering around the back of my mind – very much has an element of commentary on today’s world. I still intend it to be the intimate, honest story of a fucked-up kid trying to make his peace with life and survival, but the reasons why he’s so fucked up? That’s the real world…

Foundational Reading (kinda)

I’ve been letting myself get behind on this blog again. Normally, I put together three or four posts over the weekend and just schedule them to post during the week. So far that has kept me from getting too far behind…

I haven’t done that for the last couple of weekends, however, so I no longer have a pool of posts that are pretty much ready to go.

Grr…that means I have to make something up on the spot, and I’m not feeling particularly “bloggish” this morning.

Maybe I’ll do a quick bit on inspirations. Yeah, that can work.

A couple of weeks ago, I did a post on the fantasy and sci-fi that started my love of reading…and that led in a pretty direct way to the writing. I didn’t have the time to get in to the more recent, and more, err, intellectual reading that has also played a role.

Now, in some ways, I’m pretty old school – I think there are certain writers/works that anyone who aspires to be well-read and experienced should definitely experience, and this is an informal run through those. Please note, this list is in no way exhaustive: there are (obviously) very good writers out there that I have not yet read. The trouble is there just is always too much to read!

I am not going to try to put this list in any kind of real order. Not only do I not have the patience this morning, but I am also sitting in a strange* coffee shop and doing this off the top of my head (while trying to drown out the shit music blaring right above my head):

*Holy shit do I wish I had gone to my usual place!

1)  Tale of Genji – one of the oldest novels in the world, and for an American an education in other ways of thinking and acting
2)  Shakespeare – you don’t have to like the stuff, but the influence on modern literature is undeniable (and no, I’m not a huge fan of poetry or plays…)
3)  Tom Wolfe – good heavens, simply one of the best satirists and social critics of the last fifty-plus years
4)  Mark Twain / Samuel Clemens – a genius, and a master of the craft
5)  Aleksander Solzhenitsyn – start with Ivan Denisovitch and go from there
6)  Tolstoy & Dostoyesky – a tie here…the Russians can write
7)  Arabian Nights – you think Hans Christian Anderson had an impact on the stories we tell? These have been foundational
8)  Dickens – yeah, I know, every high school and college kid in the US gets exposed to Dickens and resents it…don’t let preconceptions blind you, however, just read him with an honest and open mind, you won’t regret it
9)  A Death in Venice – as a metaphor for the suicidal death-spiral of a civilization it is priceless
10)  Akira Kurosawa – okay, not a writer…but we are talking storytelling here, and making a movie is telling a story. Kurosawa is a genius, plain and simple – watch his movies and study the storytelling, you will learn a ton

I could go on for…oh, hours. Chekhov, Mann, Chaucer, Virgil, Plato…

Crap, time for some self-editing in order to end this post and get on with the rest of my day!

Give Me Uber Or Give Me Death!

I like mass transit. I’ve used mass transit all over the world. Hell, even stumbling, blind drunk I’ve been able to get around places like Prague and Berlin and Tokyo.

But in a (relatively) small city here in the US?

This is a whole different world.

Maybe I should set the backstory a bit: I wrecked my car. I still don’t know if it’s gonna be totaled or not, so I have no idea yet what is going to happen. But, me being me, I didn’t bother with things like rentals or loaners. Nope, I don’t need such things, I’m tough! I have feet! I have a bike!

Yeah, then my area hit a serious cold snap. I don’t mean, “Crikey, I need a sweatshirt” cold, I mean “Oh fuck, I have frostbite!” cold. I lived in New England…believe me, I know cold. I am not riding my bike in single digit weather. I might be a bit nuts, but that’s just crazy.

I haven’t felt so damned isolated and helpless since I was in high school (when we’re all isolated and helpless).

It is two and a half miles from my house to the brewery. The local bus runs a circuitous route that gets me there…hey, let’s give that a try!

*sigh*

Oh for real mass transit…

The bus is late: okay, it doesn’t matter, all I want to do is write, anyway.

The bus is, err…let’s be charitable and call it “rickety” and “run down”: it’s okay, I’ve had my shots.

The bus passengers are…?: it’s okay, I’m armed…oh wait, I’m not! Shit!!

But…and it’s a big but…I do have this neat little app on my phone! $1.25 for the bus or $7ish for Uber…guess where my future lies? At least until the weather gets warmer…or I get my car back.

In Europe, I am quite happy to be without a car. In America? People say, “Drive on over!” and I have to answer, “Well, err, I can’t.”

I think they would look more kindly on me if I was a plague-ridden psychopath who ate children. Their faces, their voices, strive for sympathy and commiseration but never really get past revulsion and fear.

For the moment, I number among the dangerous and diseased, the great unwashed, the carless.

What’s the number for Hertz again?

Behind the Curtain (a bit)

This post has been stuck in the purgatory of indecisiveness (about posting) for a while…but screw it, it’s honest and it’s me.  One thing to add is a musical thought to set the mood…a stanza from a song called “You Get What You Give” (yes, another Chuck Ragan song…I’m pretty sure I have a man-crush there, too):

When you hit bottom
Man, it’s hard enough to climb
Much less not lay down
Much less stay awake
Or hold your head high enough
To see what’s in your way

How do you say this?

I had other stories I wanted to write, but I chose to write a sequel to Wrath & Tears instead.  The others would have papered over the problems, but Silence just makes them worse.

The first story was a way for me to explore my own feelings and issues about suicide (more directly than people realize, given how close I was to the characters, and what I went through to write the fucking thing).

That book was supposed to be a one-off.  There were going to be NO sequels.

I don’t like exploring my own problems…I’m much happier talking about other people’s issues, to be honest.

But I couldn’t let it go.

I chose to write the second.  Worse, I chose to write knowing that it was going to, once again, have my own faults and failings as a subtext.

Faith, this one is about.  My own faith, and my own troubles therewith.  My own faltering, and my own lack.

I grew up a Christian.  For most of my life I have been a Christian.  Through some of the best and the worst times I have been a Christian.

I’m not sure I fit that anymore.  I’m not sure I believe anymore.

Maybe it’s because my path has been so convoluted and hard…maybe it’s because I’m weak…maybe it’s because I’ve forgotten the lessons I once knew.  I really don’t fucking know.  And I hate myself for not knowing.  I’m a failure for not knowing.

I’m self-aware enough to know that I have problems with self-worth and depression, but I’ve had those forever.  I don’t love myself, so how could anyone else love me?

I fight with that every single day.

This isn’t a problem about writing a book…this is a problem about being me, and I no longer know how to fix it.

I have, in all honesty, lost faith in myself as much as I have lost faith in God.

The coming Christmas actually helps…as weird as that is.  There’s a carol—an old one—that means more to me than all the rest: Little Drummer Boy.  It may be a semi-nonsense song, but if you really listen to the words it’s about someone with nothing in this world, someone with no worth, offering his own worship.

I wish I had that faith.  Shit, I NEED that faith…and I don’t have it.

I think with words, and I feel by spelling things out.  I don’t like or want to burden anyone else, but there’s also this nagging, itching need to explore and to know.  The only way I have to know is to write.  I play a very good fraud—I can be the most together, happy, connected person in the world when I choose to be.  And it’s all bullshit.  It’s an act.

I’m the kid in the corner who’s too scared to talk to anyone.  Reality and the real world aside—and intellectually I know I can kick the shit out of anyone I meet—I’m the kid who’s afraid of everyone else.

And that kid is winning the battle with the “me” that believes I can do anything…