Nobody Wins

When you’re a new writer, you get the wonderful fun of trying to solicit an agent.

Let’s be honest here — that is (intentionally, on the agent’s part) one of the most degrading, humiliating, Kafkaesque processes to which you will ever subject yourself.  It is the literary equivalent of a full-cavity search in prison.  You can literally hear the agent snugging up their glove and glopping the Vaseline on their finger, “Just relax…”

Ahem.

There’s a reason why most agents rank just barely above politicians on the grand list of Quality Human Beings.

Err…my apologies to [edited to be anonymous: my actual agent], she’s one of the good ones. But with even that in mind, I’m not about to start lying on this blog now

I was working on some emails, while I waited for dinner to cook, and a question from a friend struck me.  Actually, it was the memories that question brought up that struck me.  This friend was asking about how to find an agent. This post represents some of the thoughts and bits of advice I didn’t put in my (hopefully helpful) response to this friend.

There is a lot of bullshit when you are first looking for an agent…

Actually, bullshit is pretty much all there is.

Some of the worst of the BS comes from those agents who insist you pass this test or that (the Bechdel and Mori “tests” being the most common).  Now, I’m not going to question the intent of those “tests” because…well…I agree with what they are trying to do.  What I don’t agree with is how they are trying to do it. Artificial “tests” like that are pure-and-simple “ends define the means” diktats.  They represent ivory tower thinking that may sound great in principle, but does nothing other than shackle writers into telling someone else’s stories.

Yes, we need more women and minorities presented in full.  We need more complexity and more depth from those characters…but not at the expense of writing stories to include token representations.  There is nothing more insulting, in my experience, than a token…well…anything.  A character should be a woman, or black, or gay, because that is who the character is, not because some editor or agent “requires” a certain number of boxes to be checked.

In my own stuff, Oz is gay.  No surprise there, I think, to anyone who has read even a single one of the DockRat snippets.  He is gay not because I “needed a gay character,” but because that is who he is.  The love he has for his best friend is far, far more defining for him as a person and a character — and for the story itself — than is his job as a baita.

Put simply, Oz is not a checked box, he is the character he needs to be.  It is more than that, actually.  Oz is the character he demanded to be, from the moment I started exploring the characters.

But the “tests” aren’t the worst of what you’ll encounter in the process.  No, sir.  Much like humans in general, there are always a few (nameless) agents and editors who can and will turn the stupid to eleven.  The worst of the stupidity is actually the simplest and most innocent of questions. It is is also by far the most pernicious:

“Please provide your best sentence.”

That’s it.

Screw you, Ms Agent-Person!

Oh, pretty much any decent writer could craft a wonderful sentence, full of all kinds of allegory and nuance.  A sentence rife with poetic allusions and every literary device ever imagined…

We could do that, and it would mean nothing.

Real sentences — sentences with truth and impact in a larger work — draw their power from context, not internal crafting.  I’ve posted more than once a couple of my favorite passages from Neil Gaimon.  Those passages mean nothing, by the way, until you have suspended disbelief and entered the writer’s world by choosing to read the entire work.

Look, I’m a firm believer in the rule that less is more.  Especially in writing, less is more.  Sentences that are short and simple have more impact.  That’s it.  That’s the rule.  Long, involuted sentences may excite dilettantes and academics, but for anyone else they simply detract from the truth and power of the story.

One of the best bits of writing advice I ever received was to read my stuff out loud.  Any sentence you can’t read out in one breath is too long.  I love that rule.  By the way, the looks you get in a coffee place or a taproom when you’re reading sci-fi out loud to yourself? Freaking priceless. Almost as priceless as how your friends explain it away.  “Him, crazy?  He’s a writer…so, yeah, he’s a fuckin’ loon.”

Look, I’m no Tom Wolfe — obviously! —  but I’m going to use a couple of my own passages to illustrate the point…then I’ll call it a blogging day.

The first:

“Oz was a lump in his bed, a tight ball pressed deeply into the corner.  That was his normal sleeping position, an unconscious hunt for the safety in the night that he’d never known.”

Yeah, it’s two sentences — sue me.  Okay, so that passage doesn’t really mean anything…not unless you know and like the character himself through the context of the story. The character in question was forced into prostitution as a child, and never escaped that life.  All of a sudden that hunt for safety — for the safety he’s never known — becomes a bit more important, don’t you think?  All of a sudden that passage gains meaning and power. Yet it’s no more than a couple of intentionally short, intentionally simple sentences…

And the second:

“It was every dream he’d never allowed himself to have.”

The character in question is a homeless kid.  He’s also a drug addict and a thief.  Drugs are an escape, but dreams?  Dreams are a distraction, and a direct path to suicide. Those few words gain meaning and power when you know and feel the context…

I hate the “one sentence” bullshit because it devalues everything a writer is supposed to be.  A writer is supposed to be honest and true not just to himself but also to the characters and to the story.  Asking a longform writer to craft a “perfect” sentence is like asking a sculptor to take one whack at the block of marble and call it finished.

Power and meaning in writing come from context, and from the reader’s emotional investment, not from an abundance of words. It is, the linguist in me says, the truth of semantics and semiotics over the illusion of grammar and syntax.

Think about this as I draw this post to a close. One of the most powerful lines in literary history is also the simplest: “Jesus wept.”

Oh, and today’s song is a bit, well, tongue-in-cheek. It’s one I quite like, actually, and is pretty fitting if you think about it a bit…

Post Three Million and One

I’ve started and stopped a post three million times in the last few days.  Every time I get some words down, it turns into a post that I’m “forcing,” and that just sucks.

For those who don’t know, forcing = bad writing.  No matter what you’re working on, if you are forcing the words, you’re starting off on the wrong side of the bell curve…and that climb to reach even “average” is pretty damned steep.

So I’m forcing the content, and the words…oh, and my keyboard is starting to go bad…

Welcome to writer-hell.

*sigh*

I could, I suppose, just do a post on politics…

Or a list post…

Or I could remove my own spleen with a dull spoon, for that matter…

I just wrote five hundred words for a freaking football site, goddamnit!  No problem with that post, by the way, even though my interest in — and passion for — football is nowhere near my passion for writing.  But here?  Here I’ve written 175ish words about…not writing.

Is it really all that bad if I start in on the scotch at 7:30 in the morning?!*

*A favorite movie scene of mine, by the way, comes from “Mr Mom”:  Michael Keaton is trying to act all tough and ‘manly’ when his wife’s new boss comes to pick her up.  “Want a beer?” Keaton asks.  “It’s nine o’clock in the morning!” comes the reply.  “Scotch?” Keaton responds.  That scene still cracks me up.

Ahem.  Never mind.

Oh, I did have a couple folks ask me if I’ve made up my mind about which fantasy series to write.

Err…well…no.  Not really.

One of the things I do when I’m thinking through and trying to prep a story is write a few random scenes — unplanned stream-of-consciousness scenes, I should add — from different POVs.  Doing that lets me explore my characters to see if there is any there there.  It also lets me explore different voices and narration options.

I doubt it needs to be stated, but I’ll put this little lesson out there anyway: your story’s narrative voice and tone are freaking vital to the story itself!  You absolutely cannot just “wing it” with that stuff.  You have to explore and test and find the right fit, or your story will fall apart no matter how good the characters and plot.

The thing with the two series I’m looking at is that I don’t yet have that clear voice and tone.  I have the characters for both (I think!).  I have the basis for building plots for both of them, as well.  What I don’t have is exactly how I tell those stories…

Hence my exploration and writing of random “test” scenes.

I suppose I should offer an example.  I’ve put it up here before, but below is one of the “test” scenes I wrote for Somewhere Peaceful to explore some of the dynamics for my protagonist (specifically his relationship with his father, and the incident that changed his life).  Keep in mind, the bit below is exactly what I described: random, unplanned, unedited, stream-of-consciousness writing…it also (somewhat accidentally) defined the tone I used for the stories, albeit from a different character’s POV.

Oh…and this scene feels kinda right to post again given everything that has happened in the US in the last 6-8 months…

Riot Memories: Connor’s Dad

The biggest crime of it all is that I’m not there to tell you this myself.  I will never forgive myself for that.  You and I have had our problems, but in spite of disagreements and arguments, in spite of my failures and the ruin I’ve made of your life, you’re still the only good thing I’ve managed in this miserable universe.

I went to the Market that day just looking for a few drinks.  I was off work, and our visit the day before was eating at me.  My last words to you were pissed off, and through all eternity I can never make up for that.

I should have known something was wrong.  The atmosphere was too tense, the voices too quiet and the tempers too short, for it to be a normal day.  A couple of beers over lunch was enough time to see that atmosphere grow worse and worse.

Finally, I could hear a commotion at the hatch to the transit dock.  Not really shouting, but voices raised in question and answer.  Anger and stress everywhere.

I should have left.

Instead I went to see what was happening.  That decision changed everything.  That decision ruined your life more than everything else I fucked up, and that’s saying something.

You know the Market, that area around the door is pretty tight.  It might be just the stairs coming down from the entrance, and a bunch of stalls and tables, but it is packed.  Nothing really substantial, but more then solid-enough for a semi-converted cargo hold.

Johnny had told me the takies were coming.  He said he’d heard about about some kind of raid.  I guess the Council assholes decided it was time for another crackdown.  Can’t leave Dockside alone…no, sir, we can’t have the poor bastards just getting on with life and business.  Not when there’s money to be made from taxes and fines.

No one knew what the fuck to expect.  Everyone I asked figured it would be a few Stationside cops and a Council agent or two.  Roust the stalls a bit.  Confiscate some shit.  Harass people for not having implants.  The same shit they pull every few years.

An assault?  Nope, not a fucking soul saw that coming.

The guy next to me had a buddy workin’ the slime farm.  He got a flash over his screen that the universe was goin’ ape-shit.  Then the message just stopped.  The last words were something about cops and guns.  Dude musta been in a hurry ’cause his message made no fucking sense at all.

Everyone knows the Council would never put a gun anywhere near Dockside; too much chance of shit spiraling out of control.  No one wants blood on their hands, not when us poor-ass scumbags are nice and isolated a thousand clicks from their perfect little Station.

I guess shit changes.

They musta hit the Ops center first because they definitely had control of all the major systems.  The hatch just popped.  No warning, none of the usual shenanigans, it just popped open to let in a flood of assholes in black.

They weren’t storming in with guns pointed, which I guess is a miracle, but they were still ready for trouble.  They were pretty fucking free with their clubs, and they used their riot shields like battering rams.  I was in the back of the crowd so I didn’t get hit, but fuck me if I didn’t get half-trampled by people trying to turn and run.

I was thinking about getting the hell back to our pod when the shit really started.  I know the hold is fifty feet high, and sound echoes like mad in there, but damn if that wasn’t the loudest few minutes of my life.  Insults and threats were everywhere, but mostly I remember the screaming…the fucking screaming was the worst.  I almost pissed myself.  It was definitely time to leave.

Trouble was, more and more people kept pushing in.  Everyone wanted a piece of the goons who were trying to beat their way in.  Those goons all musta had the same bullshit fantasy about being bad-ass special-forces types because they came in wearing all-black fatigues and tried to look like some fantasy version of an assassin.  Fucking idiots.  Everyone wanted a piece of them.  I’m not small, but fuck if I could push back against all the bozos who wanted a go at the cops.

Then I heard a shot.

Well, I didn’t so much hear the shot as what came after: dead silence.

I haven’t heard silence since I left Mars.  You haven’t been on a planet since you were six, so you have no idea what it’s like.  To hear the Market go absolutely still and silent, even just for a second, was the oddest, worst thing I’ve ever heard.

Then all hell broke loose.

I thought it was bad before, but that was nothing next to what happened.

I’ve been in riots, and what we had going until then was a normal, garden-variety riot.  Some broken bones, a shit-ton of damage, and nothing more than funny stories and bad feelings.  That shot changed everything.  It went from riot to full-fucking battle real fast.

“Push back the takie cops” became “kill the takies” almost instantly.  It’s Dockside….I think the Stationside assholes forgot what that means.  They’re used to being the only ones with guns in their safe, quiet station.  Well, half the Market was armed…and all of it was panicked.  Shots came from everywhere, but you could barely hear them over all the screaming.

People were pushing and shoving, trampling each other to move around.  No one was going the same direction, no one knew what the fuck was happening.  All we knew was that it was time to get out.

The place was a nightmare.  All the stalls had been turned over and everyone was panicked as hell.  Everything as far back as Snug was a mass of chaos.  I don’t know if most folks were rioting or running, but no one was gettin’ anywhere in all that shit.

I’m not much for brains, you know that better than anyone, and I’m even less for bravery.  When I smelled the smoke, I gotta admit I joined the panic.  A fire.  A fucking fire.  In the Market.  That place is a death trap at the best of times, but in the middle of a fucking gunfight?  Anyone who didn’t get out was screwed.

I didn’t get out.

I looked back and saw the last of the cops back away through the hatch, then the fucking thing slid shut.  Even over the noise and chaos, you could hear the locks seal.  That left only the one way out, the door back into the res-holds.  The Market is only three hundred feet long, but it might as well been three hundred miles.  With everyone screaming and panicking, there was just no way out.

A minute later the lights snapped off.  I can barely make my way through that place at the best of times, but in pitch dark?  We were all screwed…then screwed times ten when the air-system shut down.

You don’t think about them very much, but the hum of the blowers and filters going is literally a part of life.  When everything shuts down, however, you can’t hear anything else.  Shots; screaming; shit crashing; none of it was loud enough to drown out the silence.

There was no air, and the only light came from a fire that was growing fast.

Yeah, we all know that’s a possibility.  We all know the only safe way to deal with a fire is to completely cut off the affected hold, but who the hell expects that to happen to them?

The smoke was the worst.  There was no circulation, so the air just hung there and let the smoke accumulate.  I must’ve been near the heart of the thing because it was only a few seconds before I couldn’t breathe.

Then some big bastard knocked me down and pushed over me as he ran for the door.  I tried to pick myself up, I really did, but I just couldn’t.   I was already half in the bag, and random assholes kept stepping on me.

I looked over and saw some girl who was in the same boat.  She had a baby with her.  I don’t how or why I noticed, but that kid looked exactly like you did the day your mother bugged out on us.

The last thing I saw was that kid’s blue eyes, and his hand reaching out to me for help.

Fuck, I can’t even die right.

How Do You Choose?

Random writing, today.

I’m working on the fantasy series I want to write.  Unfortunately, the series I have in my mind is…well…it’s at least two different series.  Two different ones, but both do I want to write.  Both have characters I like, and stories I believe in.

How do you choose?

The worst torture the Romans could ever dish out was simple: line up the entire the family, then ask the father which child lived and which died.  The father always gave the Romans whatever they wanted.

So, for me, which story lives, and which dies?  Into which story do I plunge the dagger?

Okay, so no story every really dies…but putting one off for a couple of years (at the minimum) feels a whole lot like killing it…

Like that father, how do you choose?

No, really, how do you choose?

The story not of the young kid who wields a magic sword to become king, but rather the story of the sword so dedicated that he seeks out the last survivor of “his” family…

Or the story of the bitter immortal — the “angel” exiled for his part in the lost war in heaven — who wants nothing more than the grey numbness of oblivion…

I love Connor and Oz.  Err…well…Connor is a great character, and a great narrator, but it is Oz who I actually love.  It is Oz who is my favorite character.  But their time is coming to a close.  Once their third story is written, that’s it.

Hell, if I’m honest, there never should have been more than one.  Somewhere Peaceful to Die was written to have no sequel…but I couldn’t let those characters go.  The Silence That Never Comes and The Flicker of Ghosts came (are coming) because I couldn’t let go of those two characters.  But the time has come to finally let go…

So what fills the blank?  The stories of devotion and innocence that drove my youth?  My take on the Belgariad and the Chronicles of Amber and the Lord of the Rings?  Or…

Or…

Or, a more deeply personal tale?  A tale built on experience and reality?  A tale of a weary life lived among those far younger?  A tale of bitterness and loss amidst the joys and innocence of youth…?

It would help, of course, if one had a character that stood out more for me than the other…but both call to me:

Finntan’s hope, the innocence of his life, and the dedication of the magic items that dedicate themselves to him…

Versus the world weary insouciance of Runae…versus the concept of the once-great wanting nothing more than the forgetfulness of death…

How do you pick which child lives and which dies?

How do you choose between the hope and love that you wish the world was, and the bitter pain that you know the world actually is?

I tried conflating them, I really did.

Yeah, it was worse than you think it was.

Those two cannot be combined.  Not in any way.  I tell either Finntan’s story, or I tell Runae’s.  I can’t combine the two…not any more than I can plan out to a third series!

*sigh*

This is why, of course, writers get paid the…ahem…small bucks.

If I had wanted to get rich, I would’ve been a plumber.

Musical Note — the song below is one I love. It is a song that has not specifically been a part of anything I’ve conceived or written, but rather has elements that touch on everything I’ve written (not to mention having the best song line ever: “If you’ve never stared off into the distance / Then your life Is a shame”)…

Art Class

Art is supposed to make you feel.

That’s it.  There you go, you just got your BA in Art for free.  You’re welcome.

What?  More to the story than just that?

*sigh*

Fine.

Art also needs to make you think.  It needs to make you want to look beneath the surface and find the piece’s message.  It needs to make you want, even, to take those emotions and that message and examine their meaning in your own life and world.

This holds true, by the way, for everything from the greatest works of music and painting and literature to the very least ones.  If it makes you feel, if it is in some way evocative of emotion and experience, it did its job.

For my fellow writers out there, that means your story has to mean something.

That is, by the way, why I despise the books that tend to dominate bestseller lists and bookstore racks — they are generally the shallowest and most meaningless of fluff.  Action-adventure tales, mysteries, romances, thrillers…it is just far too common for these “beach reads” to ignore the imperative to inspire and evoke, and instead focus on simply pandering to the lowest common denominator.

I want to use a bit of an experiment here.  I want to play Art Professor for a moment and set an exercise for the class.  I’m posting a picture of a sculpture below.  Before you read the explanation below that picture, I want you to just to study the piece and see how it makes you feel.  I want you to find what the sculptor was trying to say, and what it means in your own life:

I love sculpture, by the way.  I can sit and stare for a long time at a painting…but I can sit and stare all freaking day at a truly meaningful sculpture.  And, yes, I did exactly that the first time I saw this piece in the Vatican Museum.  I stared and thought.  Thought not just about the story/myth the creator was trying to depict, but also about what he was trying to say.

That serpent, killing the father and his children…it was more than a freaking serpent, I knew.  There is too much emotion in this piece — too much honesty — to be a simple depiction of a myth.  I know what I felt as I stared at it that first time — and the various feelings and memories it has evoked every time I have seen it since — and that is a hell of a lot more than just curiosity at the fate of a Trojan priest at the hands of some god-sent sea serpents.

The piece itself is tucked away at the end of a short hall in the Vatican, given no real explanation or context.  The first time I saw it, I knew nothing of its import or effect.  I knew nothing of the inspiration it was for Michelangelo’s later works; I knew nothing of the shattering effect it had on Renaissance artists when it was dug up and put on display in Rome in 1506; I knew nothing, even, about the fact that it was the statue Pliny the Elder had so powerfully described in a work written two thousand years before (a work I had translated years earlier as part of my study of Roman history).

I just knew it hit me like a ton of bricks.

It is still one of the most powerful pieces of art I have had the privilege to experience.

Now, fellow writers, did you do your class work?  Did you follow the exercise?  Did you study the piece and explore what it meant?

And, for the most important question of all, did you go beyond the exercise and think about how you evoke emotion and feeling in your own work?  Did you think about what those boys were thinking as they died?  What the sea serpents really meant?  What it all really said?

You don’t have to hit the mark, you know.  You don’t have to create a masterpiece. But you do have to try.  You have to try to create an emotional response, or you are just hacking out words.  With a lot of my own work, I am trying to make people think about the forgotten and overlooked parts of life.  Sometimes — okay, oftentimes — I am trying to bring a tear or two.  Occasionally, I even want to make folks laugh.

Oh, the piece itself…it is generally called Laocoon, or more rarely Laocoon and His Sons.  It depicts a story we first hear about in Virgil’s Aeneid* —although there are hints of much earlier versions — and was very likely created not long after that epic poem was written…which puts its creation somewhere in the area of 20 BC – 10 AD.

*Another book I had to read in the original Latin!  Ahem.

Let’s close out with a song, shall we?  Let’s go for meaningful and evocative…the “soundtrack” to the scene where I kill my favorite character. The song that has even more meaning to me from my own life: