Life Lessons

There’s always something to learn, always wisdom you have not yet acquired.  Wisdom that, over my life, includes things like: you’re never the toughest guy in the room, there’s always a catch, and — my personal favorite — tequila does not make you more attractive.

It’s always good when you can add to that accumulated wisdom.  That’s what growing and learning is all about, isn’t it?

Uhh…

Not so much, sometimes.  Not when you’re five miles into your hike … not when you’re four miles off the nearest trail … not when you’re in the most active grizzly habitat within 500 miles … not when you finally figure out that maybe having the extra-spicy curry last night wasn’t the best idea in the world…

Have you ever tried to keep your eyes and ears peeled for a wandering grizzly when your, err, “guard” is down?

Write what you know, they say.  That unfortunately is the kind of thing I know.

Ahem.

On a more cheerful — and totally unrelated! — note, a German court decided the other day that a hangover officially qualifies as an illness.  You gotta love the Germans!  Now if only that ruling had been around when I was young, I wouldn’t have had to lie to my bosses quite so often…

img_0011Not that I would ever do that.  Of course not.  I would never spend the night with friends drinking beer and scotch in the back of a brewery.  Just like I would never call in to work the next morning with “food poisoning.”  Just what kind of slacker do you think I am, anyway?!

There are, of course, plenty of writing-centered life lessons to learn, as well.  I’m not going to put together a big list of those for this post, mostly because I want to focus on one in particular: you can never make everyone happy.

If you try, by the way, you will ruin not just your story but yourself, too.

Now, I have to give that little writing lesson some context, I suppose.  You absolutely do have to keep your intended audience in mind when you write.  Back when I used to train and teach salespeople, one of the things I stressed was always remaining focused on who and what was your victim…err, client.  If you thought only about what you needed as a salesperson, you were guaranteed to fail.

You wouldn’t write about drugs and despair and nihilism if your intended audience was my father…  (Less Than Zero)

You wouldn’t write about violence and an unhealthy urge to belong if your intended audience was pre-schoolers…  (Fight Club)

You wouldn’t write about suffering and death and mass murder if your intended audience was middle and high schoolers…  (The Boy In The Striped Pajamas)

Uhh…

Here’s the thing, that little nugget of writing “wisdom” I mentioned above?  It applies to us writers…but only to an extent.  There was a great quote from S.E. Hinton a while back.  A high school girl at a Q&A event stood up and told her, “I got suspended for reading The Outsiders in class.”

Hinton looked back and gave her a smile, “I got the same thing for writing it in class.”

The Outsiders gets attacked — still! — on a regular basis for being “inappropriate” and “immoral” and for breaking all the then-current rules of convention and society.  It should never have worked, according to the experts of the day.  No one at the time thought kids were capable of reading something like that without turning into criminals and thugs.

It is also one of the greatest examples of a writer who truly did know her audience — far, far better than did the “experts” of the day.

Hinton didn’t worry about making everyone happy, she worried about making herself — and her audience, her real audience — happy.  And it kinda worked out okay…

On the other hand, when a writer crosses the fine — not to mention hard-to-detect — line between knowing their audience and pandering to them, they have abandoned all hope of creating a story that matters.  Worse still is when a writer panders not to their audience, but to the conventions and mores of, well, any of the closed, insular little worlds into which our society has split.

There are all kinds of “tests” out there for creative works; progressive tests, conservative tests, religious tests, secular tests, pacifist tests, violent tests…  Shit, there are even freaking vegan and omnivore tests!  When you are more worried about “passing” those tests than about writing your story, you have fallen into pandering.

Similarly, when you are more worried about keeping your audience “happy” than writing your story, you are equally pandering.

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas didn’t seek to keep the audience happy, it sought to make them uncomfortable as hell.  It sought to bring education and enlightenment through tears.  Just as, with The Outsiders, Hinton didn’t worry about making anyone happy, she sought only to tell the story that was so clear in her mind.

F77E4C05-C9E1-4393-A7E1-E4B670582209One of my all-time favorite movies is Au Revoir, Les Enfants.  Malle didn’t worry about his audience, or his producers, or the studios…he told his story, his coming-of-age autobiography.  And its last scene, the one people thought was “too sad” and “too depressing”, is what will truly stick with you.  It is that final image — that final, screw-you-I’m-doing-it-my-way image — that moves the film from “very good” to “truly great”.

*By the way, I once mentioned the concept of “story creep”…of the impulse to bring in thoughts and ideas that have nothing to do with the actual story at hand.  The same 72FFF94E-A47B-4DF8-8201-6C1D0B25C56Bproblem applies to this blog.  Thinking about the end of “Au Revoir” starts my squirrel-driven mind going down just all kinds of rabbit trails, especially about how to end a story or film with a truly impactful moment.  Without going too far off-point, or too deeply into the weeds, all I will say is if you want to know how to end a story, watch the brilliant “Ivan’s Childhood.”  Tarkovsky was a freaking genius.

I wish that lesson were easier for us writers to learn, not to mention to hold to.  Hell, I wish the industry itself were at all friendly to the concept.  But we struggle with it, and the industry is not.  All of the dynamics, in fact, push us to write our stories for others…to try to make everyone happy, except for ourselves.

We are not actors, to tell someone else’s story.

We are not pop singers, to perform someone else’s music.

We are writers, dammit.  If you can’t tell your own story — the story you want to create — what’s the freaking point?

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…

 

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…

Sorry, Mom!

Okay, since this is — err, technically — a writing blog, I suppose I have to pay at least some lip service to my writing…but, of course, I’ll come at it from a weird direction…

You live in Yellowstone?  You must get all kinds of inspiration for your writing up there!”

Umm…yes and no.  Yes, because the place really does have an innate magic that can’t help but touch you.  And No because, when I’m out in the Park, I’m…well…out in the Park.  Oh, I bring a notebook and a pen along on most hikes, but let’s be honest here: I spend that time hiking and soaking in the surroundings, not thinking.  As much as I love — and need — to write, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to switch gears from outdoorsman to writer.  Not least because, when I write, I put all of my focus and attention into the words.  To do that when I’m sitting on the top of a mountain?  Or deep in the woods?  Yeah, at that point it’s not quite so easy as it is when I’m sitting at the picnic table at the back of my RV site.

Oh, and because … well … bears.  There’s a now-hard-to-find picture of some girl in F7FFE55A-77D3-4284-A6FA-6F1EBCEFABD3Alaska who was so absorbed in setting up and taking her selfie that she missed the grizzly coming up behind her in that picture…   I’m pretty sure my Mom would prefer it if I didn’t end up an ursine Happy Meal with my earbuds in and a pen in my hand.  Although, now that I describe it that way, I suppose there are worse ways to go!

Sorry, Mom!!

The internet in Yellowstone sucks, how do you keep up with family and news and all that stuff?”

Umm…I mostly don’t.  Look, I’m a complete introvert* who needs to “get away from 543617DA-2735-4F8E-A8AD-F07F478C3355it all” for at least a part of every year.  Okay, okay, I really DO get it — doing so for six months at a time might be considered a BIT more than “part of the year”, but I’ve always believed in the old joke that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess!

*Although I CAN pretty effectively fake being an extroverted “nice guy” when necessary.

My family is pretty used to “radio silence” from me, by the way, so they tend not to get too stressed when they don’t hear from me for a while.  Well, except for that time when my Mom called the cops on me because I forgot to call for … umm … ahem … better than two months …

Sorry, Mom!

As for the news?  It just frustrates and irritates me, anyway.  I give myself one morning a week to read the news, over my coffee and bagel.  At the end of that morning, I usually wonder why the hell I bothered wasting my time and energy.  I then head out to see if I can tempt a grizzly into eating me in an effort to atone for my news-reading sin.  Hell, if I didn’t need my iPad for writing, I’d cover it in peanut butter and try to get the bear to eat that

How many words do you write in a week up there compared with back home?”

Great, thanks a ton for making me feel guilty about my lack of productivity.  I average about 1,000 miles of hiking in six months up here, doesn’t that count for something?!

*sigh*

Fine, here’s the reality: a full, dedicated day of writing will see me put down somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 effective words.  I will also, on a day like that, accomplish a few writing-oriented chores that do not directly involve creating sentences and scenes.  That means that, back home, I can (and hopefully will!) produce anything from 10,000 to 15,000 first-draft words in a week.  Up here, I’m happy to end a week with 4,000 words on the page.  Occasionally — like when the Yellowstone Beer Fest was happening! — I produce zero words.  Such is my cross to bear*.  

*Pun fully intended!

Can I have a free copy of your stuff?”

Can I have your f*@#ing house?  There ain’t many people in this universe getting rich from writing, and I am most definitely NOT one of those few.

Okay, I get it, Yellowstone isn’t really an inspiration for you…so what does inspire you?”

Beer.

Well….beer and coffee.

Oh, and tourists.  Any time I need to write a character who is annoying, ignorant, or stupid — or, better yet, all three — I just study the tourists for ten minutes.

Are you grumpy, or what?  I’m glad you aren’t in public relations!”

That WAS public relations for me.  Get any staff member who has spent more than a month up here even the slightest bit drunk, and we will tell you stories that’ll make you want the supervolcano to go off!

So, on that topic, the supervolcano…  It’s just media-hype, right?  A fake-news thing?”

55D93F29-BCB4-4F24-8034-5BC193432AFCMy RV currently sits all of two thousand meters above an active magma chamber the size of freaking Montana.  Mt St Helens put out one-quarter of a cubic kilometer of
stuff…and that devastated shit for miles.  The last Yellowstone eruption put out A THOUSAND cubic kilometers of shit.  2.1 million years ago, Yellowstone put out 2,500 cubic kilometers!  So, yeah…“fake news”…

Where are you going after this season?”

Somewhere I can do more writing.  I love being up here, I really do.  I love the park, I love the hiking, I love the animals…but I don’t produce crap as far as writing is concerned.  From a real-world, financial perspective being up here is stupid as hell.  Let’s be honest — no one comes up here to work for the money.  There ain’t no money up here.  Pretty much every seasonal employee up here just manages to break even for the season.  That’s it.  At best, you might put away a few hundred.  Which is why 75% of the seasonal staff are either college kids or retired folks.  To be one of the few still trying to make a living while working in the park?  Yeah, that has it’s problems.  I’m going to need the six months following this just to make up the ground I lost being up here…and I still wouldn’t change it for anything.

Okay, with all that said — are you FINALLY going to call your mother?”

No, I’m going to write.  Then I’m gonna lead a moonlight hike through a geyser basin…

Sorry, Mom!