The Medium

Does it matter?ink-bottle-parchment

Does it matter to you just what is the vehicle for the words you read?  How about for those you create?

That’s a hell of a question.  The ex-sales & marketing weasel in me says, “No freaking way.”  You fill every channel you possibly can, you give potential buyers every opportunity to buy your work.  That’s Sales 101 (subject to a couple of special-case corollaries I may touch on later, but probably won’t).

The reader in me, however…

The reader in me thinks the whole argument is silly.  I like books.  No, honestly…I really like books.  There is something infinitely satisfying about opening a physical book to read, something infinitely … err … more about reading words printed on a page.  A physical book is, to me, an experience and a quality that an electronic screen simply cannot match.book-reader

Now, I have given some ground on this moral absolute — books and stories I want to savor, books and stories that matter, are purchased as books, but the less important stuff?  The books I’m unsure about?  The stories in my chosen genres I’m reading not out of true interest but simply to stay involved with what is current?  Yeah, those get the iPad treatment.  But it ain’t the same thing, not to me.

I am, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, also pretty weird…so your mileage may vary.

Okay, so that’s the personal aspect, but what about the professional one?  Does it matter if a story is published in purely electronic form?  Or does it have to be in print to be real?

Erm…

Ahh…

Crap, I don’t know the answer to that one.  I’ve never gone the pure-electronic route, I’ve worked and fought and bled to be in the “physical” space.  Oh, I know the numbers involved in both, just as I know the pluses and minuses to both.  What I don’t know is what that means to me.  And, yes, I’m writing this post because I’m struggling with mediums, struggling to decide if I actually want to continue to work and fight and bleed to live in the “physical” medium (and all the entrenched east-coast bullshit that goes with it).

So, I ask again: does the medium* matter?  Does it matter to you as a reader?  Most importantly, does it matter to you as a writer?

*And, no, I’m not talking about the Promised Land of TV…let’s leave that to “Game of Thrones” and “The Expanse” and “Man in a High Castle” and the handful of others that have passed that particular gate…

0*H2ZlUUFyJwz-Dw1s.Err…on that “special corollary” note I mentioned earlier: am I the only one who would be willing to pay, and I mean really pay, for a special version of favorite books?

In the brewing world we take special, limited release brews, stick ‘em in 22-ounce “bombers” with special labels, and charge a hefty premium for them.  The counter-intuitive result is that the more is charged, the more something is (often artificially) created and billed as “limited release”, the more people are willing to pay…often to a ludicrous extent. Think $30-50, or sometimes more, for a “special” 12-ounce bottle… “Why, hello, Mr. Profit-Margin!”

the-last-guardian-collectors-edition-ps4-3Video games kinda started my professional writing (long story, not gonna go into it)…and that industry does something similar. Add a printed instruction book, a cheap printed map, and maybe an action-figure or some other form of kitsch (I still have my Fallout lunch box, thank you very much) and you can charge triple for a “Collector’s Edition.”

Well…what if some nutty-ass writer or publisher decided to do something similar?  I’m not talking hardbacks, I’m not talking “signed” copies…what about a special font on handmade paper pages, and a hand-tooled leather cover, for a favorite fantasy story?  Shit, a couple thousand bucks for Masters of Rome in scroll form?  Yes, please.

What about  a bespoke, dedicated reader (looking exactly like the Guide, of course) for Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?  Oh hell yeah…

Err, okay, nerd-rant over.  Thanks for playing.

Decline and Fall

When you write speculative fiction, one of your biggest tasks is world-building.  Whether you’re writing a star-spanning sci-fi civilization, or a medieval kingdom in fantasy, that world-building is just as key as are your characters.  If the world is neither compelling nor unique, pretty much no one is going to give your (presumably brilliant!) characters a chance to reveal themselves…

Now, I do a lot of prep and background work long before I write a story.  I do it for my characters, yes, but for my “worlds” also.  In fact, I probably do a bit too much.  I work out details and histories and facts that no one will ever see, especially given the tight focus I like to keep on my characters.  I do that background work — that invisible work — because I think the depth and “reality” are necessary.  Characters are shaped by their society, and their society is shaped by it’s history.  A Pole and a Czech are not far apart in space, their respective societies are not far apart in respect to the time the modern iterations have existed, but their histories…their histories make for vastly different people and outlooks.

I started thinking about world-building over the last couple of days not because of the work I want & need to do on a new story, but because of the news.

Yep, the news.  The real world, boring, obnoxious news.

One of the favorite tools of the speculative fiction writer is the “empire in decline.”  From the decline into senescence of Tolkien’s Gondor to the fall of Moorcock’s Melnibone…

From the disintegration of Martin’s Seven Kingdoms to the disintegration of Asimov’s Galactic Empire…

Hell, from the fall of Lucas’ Old Republic to the destruction of just about everything in the Walking Dead, the decline and fall of a civilization offers far-too tempting — and far-too effective! — a backdrop for any speculative writer to ignore.

Of course, I’m not just a writer, I’m also a historian.  More than that, I’m a historian whose academic training is in the decline of the Roman Republic, and its transition to Empire.  That training and knowledge tends to give me a certain perspective on, and fascination with, civilizations on the wrong side of the peak.

560d2cee9dd7cc10008be5e5-750The thing about all those declining kingdoms and empires in stories is that they are there to give the characters something to look back to, something greater and more wonderful to hope/dream/aim for.  They’re plot devices as much as they are world-building.  That’s why you never (or very, very seldom) see good stories place the protagonist as a member of a civilization at or near its peak, not unless that power is something to be hated and overthrown.

And you certainly never see a protagonist sit amidst all the power and splendor of a dynamic, vibrant empire and say, “You know, this is all going to shit…”

So, as I said, I’ve been reading the news: You know, this is all going to shit.

As a politics geek, and a history nerd, the realization that I am living on the downslope of such an empire, that every passing year in my country will be worse than the last, is troubling and depressing.  To think that we are no longer capable of things that seemed so simple just a few years and decades ago…to think that every crisis, every problem, will just get worse…

*sigh*

But as a writer?  As a writer, that thought offers all kinds of possibilities and ideas…and challenges.  We can’t forget the challenges.  To create hurdles and problems that have meaning, that matter, is not easy when you’re talking about a society at or near its peak.

Writing-Exercises-1024x512Writing and thinking about all this has inspired a bit of a writing exercise (that will probably never see the light of day…just like most of my “practice” exercises): can I create the basis/plot for a story that works in a similar setting?  Can I create a fantasy or sci-fi setting and circumstance that sets a protagonist willingly and happily amidst a power actually at its peak?  Can there be stakes and challenges that mean something in that setting?

I Don’t Do Nostalgia

Something scary happened to me the other day.  Now, I get disturbing and unsettling things fairly often, and I get irritating things every single day, but scary?  Not so much.

I was talking with an acquaintance.  Arguing, really.  It was a discussion about the best sci-fi TV series of all time.  Nothing unusual for me in a debate like; while I have strong opinions on shows I love and hate, I am always looking for ways to get another perspective, always willing to talk about shows and movies.

images-3.jpegIn addition to writing and music, I am also — if you haven’t guessed — a movie and TV nerd.  We all have regrets from when we we were young.  We all have those annoyingly nostalgic memories and thoughts of paths not taken.  Well, my biggest regret, my worst missed path, was in not following my love of cinematography and directing.  I worked in film/TV in high school, even did some in college, but I never trusted myself enough to pursue it.  Of course, I didn’t trust myself to pursue anything in that first stint in college…which is probably why I drank my way through it rather than study…

Ahem.  Never mind.  That particular little bit of random regret is most definitely not what I sat down to write about…

I’ll spare you all the gory details of the debate itself.  I mean, you already KNEW Deep Space 9 was the best of the Star Trek series, that the (relatively) recent re-make of V was muddled garbage, and that HBO’s Game of Thrones is better than the actual books right?  Right?!?  Of course you knew all that.

None of that was the scary part, anyway.  Want to know what the scary part was?  Firefly.

images-2.jpegFire-fucking-fly.

Not just one of my favorite sci-fi shows, it’s one of my favorite shows of any genre and any time period.  I mean, crap, it’s on my list with Twilight Zone, I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H and Cheers, for God’s sake…

And it’s better than fifteen years old.

FIFTEEN!

Holy shit…it feels like that thing just came out!  I mean…crap…I can still remember watching it when it when it was new!  Hell, I still binge-watch it at least once a year…

Fifteen years old.

The damned show can almost drive.  Pretty soon it’ll get married and have little baby shows!*  Crap, a barrel of scotch made when it premiered is just about ready to drink!

*Don’t I wish — Firefly’s tiny fourteen episode run is still far-too heartbreakingly short.

By the way, if you want a good lesson in the use of flashbacks and seemingly-random jumps in sequence and timing to tell a story, and to build pathos, watch the episode Out of Gas.  I’ve written before about learning from everything when it comes to writing, and I meant it.  Some of the most important lessons on writing and storytelling I’ve ever learned came from movies: Spielberg on foreshadowing, Hitchcock on tension and suspense, Scorsese on symbolism, Scott on mood and atmosphere, Singer on manipulating perception and expectations…I could go on for a long time, but I think I’ll save that digression for another time.

The original Star Trek is over fifty…Star Wars over forty…Blade Runner thirty-five…and none of that is quite so depressing as Firefly being fifteen.

Crap, I don’t do memory (when I can help it), and I avoid nostalgia like the plague…this is no freaking way to start a day…

***

Random musical interlude — nothing really to do with Firefly or the post I just wrote, nothing other than the fact that this particular song is one of the most evocative pieces I have ever heard.  I know it’s the key and the progression and the rhythm that all combine to evoke memory and nostalgia…I know that, but still it works:

Winter

Yay for stream-of-consciousness blogging today…?

What’s that, you say?  Why am I going all last-minute random on this post?

Because I’m a slacker…we’ve covered that already.  Sheesh.

writerThere was a time — not so long ago — when I kept 2-3 posts queued up, ready to go.  Those days, unfortunately, have long-since passed in a fog laziness and distraction.  So, instead, I sat down this morning, music blaring in my ears and my 2nd coffee (pot) of the day near at hand, and stared blankly at my iPad…

Should I do another random, funny post?  No, not really feelin’ all that funny this morning.

How about a flash fiction piece?  No, that’s for Fridays.

Maybe another politics post?  Oh, hell no.  I just took a shower, I don’t need to get down into the muck and mud, thank you very much.

Well, shit…maybe it’s time to, err, do a post on what this blog is ostensibly about: writing.*

*I should probably, by the way, update the “About” section of the blog, it hasn’t been anything close to the reality of how I write this in like two years.

Screw my iPad, I’m looking out the window now.  I’m looking out at the tail end of a snowstorm, at a grove of bare aspens half-buried in the drifts, at a frozen lake in the distance and a herd of deer digging for breakfast in the foreground, at an adolescent bobcat frustrated as hell because she’s too small to actually get one of those deer…

Err, yeah, I left the city behind for a reason.

Now, if I wanted to go all ambitious and thoughtful, I’d get into symbolism and meaning…get into how we — err, how I — try to use ostensibly “background” images and activities to communicate our — my — own thoughts and feelings as part of the story.

Err…umm…doing that full topic would be a lot of work.*  I think I’ll narrow it down…and then narrow it some more.

*Umm…slacker?  Remember?

Weather.  No, really, I’m gonna talk about the freaking weather, for Pete’s sake.

Weather affects everything in the real world…and should in the written world, too.  From the rhythm and realities of life in the city as much as in the wilds, to our very moods and customs, weather is arguably the most dominant force in our lives.  What, you don’t believe me?

Have you ever been in the far north in midwinter?  In the butt-ass cold?  No sun?  Nothing but snow and cold and dreariness?  Yeah, cabin-fever is very real.

Have you ever lived at the beach?  Warmed yourself in the sun after a day of play in the waves?  

Have you ever lived amidst that stifling, miserable mix of heat and humidity?  Felt air so thick you could barely move through it?

Yeah, that’s all weather — err, well, it’s weather and climate, actually, but I think I’ll skip the pedantry today.  

So what does any of that mean in regards to writing?  How does weather come into (symbolic) play?

That’s a far more personal, and complicated, thing to answer than you might think.  Oh, sure, I could go back to high school creative writing and literature classes and quote the “standard” line about winter=death, spring=rebirth, etc… but that’s all simplistic bullshit.*

*Sorry, high school kids, but most of the curriculum they’re throwing at you is simplistic bullshit…

Look, I lived in northern New England, I understand cabin-fever.  I understand even more the dreary misery the depths of winter can bring, the depression that comes with entire weeks at a time with no sight of the sun…but I still love the winter.  I love a good snowstorm…just as much as I love being the first to hike the backcountry when that storm has passed.  I love the bite of the cold when I’m out, and the almost-unbearable heat that first hits when I come back inside.  I love sitting in front of a much-needed fire, and I love sitting out on the deck all bundled-up…

In short, winter does NOT equal the “season of death” for me.  Winter does NOT automatically equate to pain and misery and decay.  Not to go all-in on sophomoric philosophy, but winter is, for me, a necessary part of the cycle.  You have to have a time for sleep, a time for cold, a time for things to slow down, in order to have anything else.  Without winter, there is no spring.  Without winter, there is no life.

There is a reason, after all, why every single civilization/society in the far northern latitudes has a traditional celebration of warmth and life in the midst of winter.  Yes, some of that goes back to a sense of defiance of the cold and “death” of winter, but it also goes back to a feeling of re-gathering one’s strength, a feeling of freshness and preparation.  In sports terms, it goes back to that feeling of build-up you get in the locker room just before your step out onto the field (or the ice, in my case).

Crap, when I started working on this post, I fully intended it to be about writing, to be about how I use the weather to clue the reader in to my protagonist’s relationship with the Universe at any given moment.  Umm…  Err…  Ahh…

*sigh*

m0crikey_m_khakiIf I try to dive into that at this point, after 850+ words already, we’d be looking at a 3,000 word post.  Crikey!  Remember, by the way, when I mentioned that I’m a wordy sonofabitch?  That I started this blog as a way of working on short-form writing?  Yeah, today’s post just might be Exhibit A for why I need that practice…

Still, I want to close this out with at least something about writing.  Specifically, I want to close it out with a bit about how “overlooked” background elements can — and should, I say! — be used to indicate far more than just atmosphere and mood.

Bear with me, I’ll (try to) keep this short.  In the movie Casino, Martin Scorsese uses DeNiro’s clothes to indicate the character’s deteriorating mental, emotional and ethical state, to indicate how Rothstein (DeNiro) is breaking down as things fall apart.  As the movie progresses, his clothes move from stylish-but-restrained into colors and styles that are more extreme, that are brighter and more aggressive.  By the end of the movie, those clothes are in complete contrast to what he wore when he first moved to Vegas…just as is the character.  In terms of what I hinted at above — about how I use the weather in my writing — DeNiro’s clothes indicate the character’s relationship with the Universe…

In my writing, when I use winter, I am trying to imply more than just death, more than just misery and depression and despair.  I am trying to hint at rebirths and changes to come, at the re-gathering of focus and energy…oh, and at cabin-fever and frostbite, too.