The Loss of a Titan

IMG_0720One of the all-time greats is gone: Ursula LeGuin has died, and the world of sci-fi & fantasy — hell, the world in general — is far the poorer for it.

As a kid, I didn’t care if my favorite writers were men (Zelazny, Heinlein, etc…), couples (David & Leigh Eddings), or women (Cherryh, LeGuin…), I just loved to read.  Hell, did it matter to me that Samuel Delaney was a gay, black man?  No, not then…and not now.  The man could write, and that was all that counted…

I never thought then about who my favorite writers were, but now…now, I know so much more.  That’s why I call LeGuin one of the true titans: Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books that anyone who wants to claim a breadth of knowledge and experience needs to read.  It is not only brilliantly written, but is also one of those key stories that is about far more than it is “about”.

LeGuin, when you get right down to it, could flat-out write. She wrote with an honesty, and an energy and strength, that are damned near perfect.  Her career, beginning in the 60’s when women “didn’t write sci-fi/fantasy,” very much helped to change the landscape.  She had an effect then, and is still doing so now.

Hell, even those to whom the 90’s and 00’s are “ancient history” owe her a massive debt: you would not likely have Harry Potter without the Wizard of Earthsea series…

LeGuin lived to a great age, and had a life of success and influence, but her death is still a blow.   As great a blow as the early losses of Douglas Adams and Roger Zelazny, as great a blow as the losses of the likes of Dick, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury and Heinlein.

That pantheon of the true greats is getting awfully thin on the ground…and I’m struggling to find the new writers who can truly fill their shoes.  Oh, there are very good writers out there, writers with talent and vision and a true gift, but who can truly stand among those names who are gone?  Gaiman…Cherryh…Butler…

A few, there are, that I think could also rise to be among that pantheon, but they aren’t quite there yet: Scalzi…Rothfuss…Sanderson…Stephenson…*

*Great, so now I have a new challenge; it’s time to go hunting for new writers, and new greats.

But the one thing I ask — hell, the one thing I demand — is that those writing now acknowledge and understand the debt we owe to the past.  As writers and dreamers and creators, we stand on the shoulders of giants…and yet one more of those giants is gone.

Be at peace, LeGuin, and rest well, you have earned it.  And thank you.

The Movie Marathon

I started thinking about movies…both the good and the bad.  More importantly, I started thinking about the greats that stand the test of time, and their contrast with, well, the rest of the shit.

Okay, okay…so I’m grumpy and ranting at the moment, but have you really looked at the formulaic crap the current studios and directors and actors are trying to pawn off on us?  If they think I’m going to waste my Netflix subscription — let alone the $567,834 a trip to a movie theater costs — on “Boss Baby” or a remake of “Jumanji” or **shudder** “I, Tonya”…

Oh, for God’s sake, just how low can we sink?

Where the hell are the real writers and directors?*

*Before you ask, I know essentially nothing about writing screenplays.  I’m a prose guy — my only interactions with scripts came in various high school and college acting classes.

I mean, c’mon…when even STAR WARS fails, when even those “remakes” are so bad as to make the damned prequels look like outstanding cinema, we’ve reached peak-stupid.

This all got started when I watched an Andrei Tarkovsky movie the other day (Ivan’s Childhood).  Shit howdy, what a difference.  Maybe it’s because I’m writing “dark” in the current stories, but I have a real thing for Russian writers and directors at the moment…

The thing is, that movie got me going.  It started a movie jag — a GOOD movie jag: Casablanca, The Shining, Unforgiven, The Godfather (I & II), Fargo, Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr. Strangelove, Empire of the Sun…and the gut-punch at the end of the (multi-day) marathon, one of my all-time favorites, Au Revoir Les Enfants.

Shit…how do you go watch The Commuter after that?!

I’ve said it before, but I want to stress again this point: stories are stories, no matter the medium.  You can — and should — learn from all forms of storytelling.  And movies — good movies — have a great deal to teach about storytelling.  Go watch the movies I list above, and pay attention to how they develop the themes, and the characters…pay attention to how they communicate, and how they elicit emotion and thought.

And don’t stop there.  Go watch a bunch of Kurosawa films, then change things up with some Mel Brooks.  Watch the classics (African Queen is another great Bogart movie), then dive in to some foreign stuff.  Watch the indies and the low-budget, then change things up with some anime (Akira still stands the test of time).

Watch to enjoy, yes, but also watch to learn.  How Spielberg tells Jim’s story in Empire of the Sun is a freaking masterclass, and when you follow that up with Eastwood’s handling of Unforgiven…well…if you can’t learn something from those, I don’t know what to tell you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I can hear Terry Gilliam’s Brazil calling my name…

Grumpy And Distracted

I don’t really have a post in me, today.  Too busy, too tired, too frustrated.  Nothing terrible, just one of “those” days…

So, rather than put up something completely pointless and thoughtless, or delay posting until tomorrow, I figured I’d pop up another snippet.  The scenes are still going in order (well, theoretically in order).  As ever, this is the first draft of a work-in-progress:

A one-gallon bladder, soft and flexible — bought from a kitchen worker with the promise of free booze — was no easy thing to hide in a four-by-eight cell of concrete and steel.  Not when it was filled to the brim with a mash of ingredients busily fermenting away.  No easy thing, but not impossible.  No, sir, not impossible…not to someone who had grown up on t-deck.

Connor’s thin, cheap mattress might never be the same again, but a minute or two to open it and rearrange the stuffing and he had a neat little hiding spot.  If the mappo didn’t look too close.

That was the trick, of course: to distract the guards while they searched, and to point their attention elsewhere.

A shrug, then, and a mental sigh.  They’d find it or they wouldn’t.  Shou ga nai.

He took a moment to look out the small window in the now-securely-locked cell door.  There were just two teams tossing the cells, but they were doing a pretty damned thorough job.  Clothes and mattresses and knickknacks were flying out of the first two cells to land haphazardly on the dayroom’s floor.  Typical mappo bullshit: make as big a mess as possible to remind the animals just who ran the fucking zoo.

They were taking the cells in order, starting with the first floor.  That was a good thing; it meant they weren’t targeting specific people, nor looking for anything in particular.  The downside, for Connor, was that it also meant it would likely be a long while until they got to his particular cell, tucked as it was into the far corner of the second level.

A cheap, rudimentary ‘screen sat on the meager desk, called to him.  It connected only to the prison library, that ‘screen, but Connor had long ago learned the value, and the truth, in the written word.  Oz had taught him that.

His jaw clenched, and he fought the past.  The demons — those demons of memory, and of pain — they were always threatening to break loose, and that he did not need.  Not here, not now…not ever.

He drank the remainder of the jar in a single gulp and rinsed it carefully in the small sink bolted to the wall.  Why waste perfectly good booze on a shitty drain?

A moment more to consider, but the decision was easy.  No reading, not now.  His prize possession was calling even louder than that ‘screen, and the words and wisdom it contained.  Connor was one of the few in all of Chapman Pen with no cell-mate — few knew how much effort that had taken to arrange — and the cell’s top bunk served only one purpose: to cradle and hold his guitar.

That guitar was a cheap, battered pity-gift given by a sympathetic guard.  It was also Connor’s most precious possession.  His only possession, when you came right down to it.

Music…music mattered to him.  The only thing that mattered as much as reading.  It was equally a gift from his past, of course.  If Oz had given him reading, Marie and Vin had given him music.

And he’d killed all three.

There were those demons again.

Shit.

Teaching himself to play had been a slow process at first, but that same guard had linked him several songs and manuals, and Connor had worked hard to learn.  Harder, in fact, than he’d worked even to learn the languages and culture of his new ‘home’.

The desk was a tiny bit of metal sticking out from the wall, and its seat was an even tinier bit of metal.  No one could be comfortable sitting there, but Connor decided a perch on his bed would just attract attention to the fact that he did, indeed, have something to hide.  Onto that uncomfortable metal seat he went, then, guitar in hand.

He’d made the mistake of remembering, of course.  The past had power, tremendous power.  Even now, a year later — even after the demons had gone quiet and were staying in their little holes at the bottom of his mind — the past still called.  The emotion…the experience…the reality…the pain.

Around him echoed the typical prison cacophony: yells and insults between cells, inmates pounding and kicking at doors, the sheer joy of noise and chaos for the sake of noise and chaos.

It was complete misery to Connor.  Silence, and a bit of peace: the things he had never had in his life.  The things he wanted more than anything else in the universe.

He started to play, then, and to sing.  Quietly, yes, but with all of the honesty and emotion that Marie and Vin had taught him lay at the heart of music.  Emotions he could express in no other way.

Images went through his mind, carried by the music.  Flashes of those he had known.  Those he would never see again.  Marie.  Vin.  Oz…Oz’s blood, Oz’s body.

His friends.  His brother.  Everyone he loved.  Everyone he had.

The song was almost automatic, one he had played many times before.  It carried everything he could never express.  Not in prison…not in life…not ever.  Only through the music.

Every time he played that song, he found another layer to the music, to the words.  Every single time.  It said what he could not, carried everything he kept buried.

He had no idea how long he played, how many songs he sang.  It couldn’t have been long — he didn’t know all that many songs — but it felt like forever.  That was the only time in his disaster of a life when the prison went away, and the bitter rage with it: when he was playing.  When he let himself feel.

It was the closest he came to feeling that peace he and Oz had so wished for.  That peaceful place to die.

Oz had found his peace, but Connor?  Connor had found everything but.

He never heard the guards arrive outside his cell, so lost in the music was he.  Never heard the whirring of the lock.

“Shut the fuck up, you piece of shit!” a voice screamed, right next to him.

That he did hear.

A surge of violence in him, then.  It was a surge he resisted, but barely.  It was no easy thing.  The one thing that finally stopped his rage was the weapon in his hands; there was just no way he would waste his precious guitar on the head of some useless prison guard.

Dreams And A Blank Page

I’ve mentioned a few times my belief that the “next story” is always better.  The field is wide open, the possibilities endless, and the lessons learned from writing the last story still (theoretically) fresh in your mind.

IMG_0728That blank sheet of paper is an exciting prospect to a writer.  The best comparison I can offer is that feeling when, standing on top of a ridge, I look down over a place I’ve never seen or hiked…a fresh place, untrailed, unexplored, and empty.  A place of infinite possibilities.

It’s not mine, not yet.  No, it’s not mine until I have hiked it, until I have learned the lay of the land.

Just like the next story.

It’s not mine until I frame it and prep it, until I’ve explored it’s depths and breadth.  Until I know the story and the characters like I know that no-longer-fresh valley…

Even as I write Silence — slowly…oh so slowly…and oh so behind schedule* — I am starting to prep and work through the initial legwork for the “next” story.  It’s fresh, it’s new, and it very much provides a nice contrast…

*Douglas Adams’ brilliant comment on deadlines: “I love deadlines.  I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Writing Connor’s story gives me an outlet, and a flow of words and thoughts that touch the darker areas of my mind and spirit.  But you can only be dark and gritty for so long.  The world is not a paradise, nor a particularly friendly place, but acknowledging and dwelling in the dark places can be a tough weight to bear if that is all you have.  And believe me, that weight can become too much: in writing Wrath, the dark was all I had.  I won’t repeat that.

So, although I’m still writing in the dark, I let in the sun in other ways…

My hiking and camping I have mentioned before.  Without that outlet, the dark would threaten to engulf completely.  But, beyond that, letting in the sun comes down to that simplest of things — it comes down to dreaming.

It comes down to blank paper, and a whole new world.  New characters, new problems, and new tone.  New possibilities…and new stories that I want to make mine.

I have no story, not yet.  I have a world, and some dynamics and inspiration to play with.  I have a handful of (potential) characters, and hints of the context and history that will eventually give rise to the story itself.

I have dreams…  No, that’s not it, not exactly.  I have new dreams…new dreams and blank paper.

No matter what has happened before, no matter what happens now, the next story is always better.  And, for a writer, is there a better dream than that?