The Silence Of Snow

There’s something about the forest – the deep, untrod forest – in a snowstorm. It is one of the quietest, most still places you will ever experience. The feeling isn’t one of death, or even of the wildlife seeking shelter. No, rather it is one of anticipation.

It’s almost like everything, like nature itself, is holding their collective breath.

I went hiking through the forest today…hiking in a snowstorm. A place that, just yesterday, was alive with elk, and with the predators stalking that herd. A place of noise and life and a certain amount of chaos.

Today it had that profound magic, that still silence…that anticipation. I loved it.

That hike got me to thinking. Thinking about the metaphors I am using in the current story, and about the messages I am trying to send. The Silence That Never Comes, to give the story its full title.

What would that wood feel like to someone who had never heard silence?  Who had no conception of peace, of quiet and still anticipation?

That is getting to the heart of the story…and to the scene that is building in the back of my mind. The scene of my protagonist – that kid who has known nothing but violence and cynicism and despair – in the middle of just such a storm, in just such a wood.

The vision is there…the knowledge of what I want – what I need – to include is there…now it just has to be executed.

That, by the way, is one of the reasons why I write: the challenge. The challenge of putting into effective words a feeling, and an imagination, so initially vague and formless.

And, more importantly, the feeling that comes when you get it right.

I’ve said before, but it bears repeating: to get it right, to nail a scene, is a feeling that has few peers. The closest I can come, at this moment, is that feeling when I summit one of the more challenging mountains here in Yellowstone.

Is it the view? Is it the effort? No, it is the elation that comes when you do something you know so many people have either failed at, or have refused to even try.

There is a drive to that, and a certain joy…and, to put this in terms of the underlying theme to all of Silence, a certain meaning.

Connor still has yet to really discover, let alone understand, that theme, that understanding…but there really is more to life.

Note – just to put everything in context, I figured I would offer some proof…would show just what Yellowstone looks like in late summer:

WARNING! WARNING! DANGER! COMPLETELY STREAM-OF-CONSCIOUSNESS WRITING AHEAD!!

I’ve already hiked-out a pair of boots. No, really: I bought brand new Timberlands last October, and I noticed today just how destroyed and falling-apart they have become.

I’d make some joke about things not being made like they used to be, but let’s be honest…I’ve put those boots through a metric ass-ton of abuse over the last three months. There are A LOT of pretty hard miles on them…

The more hours I spend in the backcountry, the harder it gets to think of Connor and his world. I find myself thinking more and more about the two or three fantasy stories/series I have floating around the back of my mind. Hell, I’ve written six or seven snippets for those stories, if only to explore the main characters, and their world/society.

It’s amazing just how much your surroundings impact the work…hell, how much they impact the vision and imagination. When I’m “home”, working on sci-fi isn’t all that hard: I can see and feel Connor and his world. Okay, so, in all honesty, I’ll admit that I don’t exactly write hard-sci-fi. My college physics experience was most definitely proof that C’s do, indeed, get degrees…I couldn’t write hard-sci-fi if you held a gun to my head. My stuff is as soft-sci-fi as it gets…and as character-centric: Connor’s bitter, cynical world of contrast and strife is fairly easy to come to when I’m surrounded by people and concrete.

But what happens when those give way to trees and dirt? Different story. No, literally: I have a completely different story in my head. Different tone, different meaning, different message. When I’m bushwhacking through spaces that haven’t seen a human in years – if not decades – I can’t help but imagine what life must have been like a millennia ago.

Hell, hiking-out those boots illustrates to me one of those concepts that has really changed over time: that of distance. 8 miles is nothing to us, it’s a trip to the convenience store for beer and munchies at midnight. 8 miles is also, however, about the maximum that your basic, out-of-shape tourist can walk in a single day. Put Betty the Cubicle-Dweller on the trail, and after 8 miles she is completely done.

Hell, even I struggle to do much more than twenty miles in a day, and I hike more in a month than most people do in several years.

Just to offer a contrast: the Roman legions marched thirty miles a day, rain or shine, road or no road, just outside of Rome or in hostile territory. Then they built a fortified camp at the end of that march. Every single night.

THAT is the concept we have lost: just what a day’s walk really is.

You think London and Canterbury are the same place? Walk them. No, honestly: get out and walk the road…your understanding of distance will change rapidly. And, no, horses don’t really change the math. Sure they can run, trot or jog much faster than us…but only for short distances. For a long-haul journey, it’s time to walk, and a horse walks only about one mile an hour faster than a human.

Okay, that’s enough of this entire digression…

Maybe I should point out that I, literally, just got back from my hike. Instead of laying down for a nap, I decided to try and pound out a post (since I didn’t have one ready for this morning). That may have been a mistake…

On the other hand, I have another huge load of pictures for later this week. Yay!

On Revival

Redemption and revitalization are two of the most common themes in writing. Hell, those two concepts underlie just about every plot and story out there. Okay, so that’s it for the Lit 101 recap…why am I talking about this now?

It has something to do with recovering my own energy and focus, yes, but it has more to do with what my current surroundings have to teach.

I was hiking through an area burned out just a couple of years ago…and I mean completely nuked.

It was eerie: the trunks of many dead trees still standing tall, blackened and burned and ready to be blown down by the next strong wind. All around was complete silence, and that strange feeling you get walking through a graveyard.  Like disturbing something that is none of your business.

But…but in spite of the quiet, in spite the sense of death and destruction, there was something more, something quite different. The ground was anything but death and destruction. It was a carpet of deep blues and purples, the cool of those colors broken by the occasional contrasting slashes of reds and yellows. And below it all, the bright greens of young, vibrant plants just beginning to really grow.

Wildflowers. Millions of ‘em.

It took the death of thousands of trees to open the space for the sun to shine through. It took the renewal of the soil that comes with burning off the old and cluttered to make way for the new and strong. It took revitalization. It took drastic and irreversible change.

That is what I’ve been thinking about. That is the force I can see and feel in my own life right now, and the force I need to see and feel in what I write.

I’ve said before that I’m not a plot-centric writer. I’m a character guy – my characters are the life and heart of any/every story. They have to see and feel, taste and touch, the realities of life quite as much as do I.

Writing Wrath & Tears resonated with me because it was a story, at the heart of it all, about the suicide of a friend. It was personal to me, it was real. Silence is about – again, at the heart of it all – the recovery and revitalization of a kid hopeless and broken. About not just surviving, but overcoming, the disasters of life.

Just like every story I write – whether novel-length or short-story – is captured and defined by its final image, the themes I’m addressing (or trying to address, at least) are captured by that one image* I described above…by the forest of the dead being reborn in a riot of color and vibrant chaos.

*And, no – I did not get pictures while I was in that forest. I do promise to try and get back there for some shots, but I have no idea when that will happen.

The Silence That Never Comes

It took some thinking for this post. It especially took some thinking to use this particular title. Those blessed with good memory may recall that the above is also the working title of the current story I am writing (the sequel to This Place of Wrath & Tears).

Now, for Connor, the title carries the message and symbolism of his search for meaning and value in life. Of his nend to answer the question/problem of “there has to be more to life than this.” I hesitate to call it a search for faith, but in all honesty there is an awful lot of that in there as well.

That search, very obviously, has meaning for me as well. Crap, I wouldn’t write the damn story if it didn’t mean something to me. Just as I wouldn’t create characters, or use themes and subtexts, that are meaningless to me.

I had the day off today, so I went for a hike. Rather than go to one of the well known sites, or use one of the marked trails, I decided to set off for a bit of back-country hiking*.

*Yes, Mom, I carried bear spray and watched out for hungry and/or horny animals.

Where I call home has more than doubled in size since I moved there almost 15 years ago. Do you have any idea how long it’s been, among all those people, since I’ve heard silence? Since I’ve been able to get outside without people and dogs and cars and noise all around me? Hell, even the trails and national forests in my area are crowded and noisy.

I didn’t reach my destination on the hike, but I never expected to. The ground was snowy and marshy, the hills sudden and steep, and the way overgrown and difficult. I walked until I found a good spot and sat for a bit, just looking around me. Again and again I did that.

More than looking around, however, I listened.

I listened to silence.

The sound of tall trees in the wind. The sound of an animal a couple of hundred yards off. A few birds. The rushing of a tiny rivulet from the rapidly melting snow. That’s it, that’s all I heard.

All the things I haven’t heard in ages. All the silence I haven’t heard in…oh…decades, it feels.

Being who I am, I spent the time not just wrapping myself in all that silence but also thinking and planning about the thematic elements of Silence. And about what I want and need to communicate, both for myself and for Connor.

My time finally finding silence, and my thinking about Silence, was a reminder and a reinforcement for me: I write this blog for other people. Oh, I enjoy it, and I get both fun and benefit from writing these posts, but this is by definition something I do for others.

For good or for ill, I write my stories for me. That I share them is a side-benefit. They are more than the way I give life to those ghosts fluttering around me, they are the vehicle for my own thoughts and emotions…both the good and the bad.

That is why I can’t give up the writing, no matter how frustrating it can be. That is why I chose this life, and this outlet. That is why, honestly, it works: a reader doesn’t have to like what I write, but I promise you they will feel what I want to communicate.

Who could ever ask for more?

Sinners 3 : Saints 0

Last Friday’s post got me to thinking a bit.  Specifically, it got me to thinking about the future…and about my vision of it.

unicorn-poop-cookiesThe first stories I wrote were intentionally light and easy, largely positive/optimistic.  While I never tried to paint the Star Trek land of puppies and rainbow-shitting-unicorns, I also glossed over a lot of err, reality.  An awful lot.

In what I’m writing now, that “glossing over” ain’t happening.  I am focusing, very intentionally, on the darker side of life.  Corruption, inequity, marginalization, exploitation…you know, all the shit Gene Roddenberry said would be gone!

Now, one thing to keep in mind: I am a cynic.  Possibly even a borderline pessimist, some would argue.  I’m gonna stick with calling myself a cynic.  And no, the glass being half-full or half-empty doesn’t matter.  I just want to know which bastard stole my water!!

Ahem.  Never mind.

The thing that helps me most when I imagine the future?  Studying the past.

History is full of highs and lows, and the future will be no different.  I don’t, however, see the future as totally bleak and hopeless.  Quite the opposite, actually.  But I do see the centuries ahead continuing all the sins of the present.  We very much will continue to visit on our children and grandchildren all of our sins.  Just as our parents and grandparents visited theirs upon us, and their parents upon them.  Call it the birthright from hell.

Humans as a species don’t change much, and certainly not quickly.  Aside from utopian dreams and naive idealism, there is no realistic situation where human nature itself will change.  If we haven’t changed all that much in the previous ten millennia, what makes anyone think things will be any different a few centuries from now?

The technology and locations and names have changed, but humans are still doing the same shit we did back when Ramses thought throwing together a big pile of bricks would be fun.  Julius Caesar could step onto the scene today and have to change nothing but the language…

We will, quite simply, always have peace and war, saints and sinners, winners and losers.  And, yes, we will always have drugs and booze and hookers, too.  Just like we will always have art and literature and music.  Not to go all gnostic on you, but there is always bad to counter the good.

I’ve written in the past about the first items in those pairs I mentioned above.  In Connor’s stories, and in his world, I am writing about the second ones.  I’ve mentioned before that it is more effective and more interesting, for both writer and story, to write about broken people than it is to deal with the perfect (here’s a link to that post), and that very much still holds true.

I could be writing about suicide and alienation and hopelessness from the perspective of a quiet, wealthy suburban kid…but those stories would lack the power and visceral, immediate reality of writing about a couple of street kids.

Besides, in all honesty, it’s just more fun to write about the sinners than the saints…

It’s Not Binge-Watching, It’s Research!

I’ve mentioned before I don’t do cable, I stream.  The problem with streaming is that you can just head off on random tangents.  Oh, I don’t mean stuff like binge-watching every single episode of Game of Thrones in a single weekend.  No, I would never do something like that.  Not me!  Nothing to see here, just move along…

No, lately I’ve been going, err…”research”.  Doing the old “compare and contrast” shtick from my school essay days.  Things like comparing both versions of Battlestar Galactica, or the old campy 60s Batman* versus the more current movie iterations, that kind of thing…

*How the hell did Bruce Wayne escape a life sentence, anyway?  He kept a young boy in a cave!

Anyway, part of my little experiment has been rewatching the various Star Trek series.  Now, I need to set the stage by admitting my complete addiction to the original series.  An addiction, I should add, that dates back to when I was like five years old.

The original series will always, always, always have a special place in my heart.  Kirk – and Jack Aubrey, for fellow historical fiction fans – is still the ultimate prototype for what a sci-fi/adventure captain should be.  Shit, I still want to grow up to be Kirk…

But the best of the lot?  Deep Space 9.  Odd, I know.  That one is pretty much the red-headed stepchild of the Star Trek world.  It’s the part of the universe that’s not really part of the universe.  That’s one reason why I like it so much.

Leaving the different captains and characters aside, each of the series had its own personality and focus.  And those differences are why I prefer DS9 above even the original:

The original Star Trek series was a commentary on the politics, culture and social problems of its day.  While that is what sci-fi can do very, very well (hey, I chose it as a genre for a reason!), it made that series more about plot than anything else.  The situations into which Kirk and the others were placed were in total control.  Everything else (characters, tech, etc…) was there to serve that plot.

Next Generation, on the other hand, was really all about the tech.  Oh, there was still some commentary, but it was less important than the gee-whiz tech (and the consequent special effects).  This was also the most…unrealistic of all five series.  Jesus, this thing drove me nuts with its saccharine cheerfulness.  To me, it’s still the worst of the lot.

VoyagerVoyager followed closely in TNG’s footsteps.  In spite of some good performances – and some real improvement in writing and directing in the later years – it’s still a show about a ship.  With some people on it.  And aliens.  And reversing the polarity of something…on every single goddamned episode.  Find a new throwaway line, for fuck’s sake!

Enterprise tried to get into characters, but it took until like season three for you to give two shits about any of them.  Two-thirds of the characters on that show needed to be punched.  Repeatedly.  It tried to escape the mold of the other series (being the last one made), but never lived up to its premise, nor escaped the shadows.

And then there’s DS9.  In spite of the criticisms above, I actually liked all the shows, but DS9 is my favorite for one simple reason: it’s a show about the characters.  The station is just a backdrop, it means nothing.  The setting and tech are there just to support the damned characters.  That’s the way it should be.  Oh, and I suppose I should mention that it’s also the darkest of all five.  It succeeds with themes and problems the others could not do well.  It also brings a certain bit of jaded cynicism the other shows, far more optimistic and happy, could never even consider.

Dammit…my little 400-word post (wishful thinking, I know) has blown up on me, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.  Shit, I could do a twenty-thousand word paper on this and still leave crap out.

I think I’ll just cut my losses and go nerd out on some anime now…The Eccentric Family at the moment, if you’re wondering.  Absolutely gorgeous animation that is also pretty unique in terms of style, and a story that is simultaneously funny and dark as hell.

P.S.

There is a (kinda old) joke that the two best Star Trek movies ever made are “Galaxy Quest” and “Master & Commander”.  It’s funny because it’s pretty much true…

I Reject Your Reality…

Meaning and subtext. Well, hell, why not take a shot at it today? I’m behind on posts, so I have to get one or two prepped and scheduled if I want to actually stay ahead of the game. And, yes, that means the once huge backlog I had (about two weeks’ worth of posts that were stacked up and scheduled) is officially gone.

I got sidetracked by…well…the real world.

Damned real world.

IMG_0145LEAVE ME ALONE, REALITY!!

You know that old MythBusters saying? Yeah, that’s me…

Err, sorry…lost the thread for a minute there. Back to the point.

Wrath & Tears was a story about corruption and revenge and, most of all, love. But – yep, always a but – that wasn’t what it was about. It was about suicide. More specifically, it was about the despair and pain that lead to the act.

It was about a friendship and a love that, in the end, weren’t enough to save a life.

I’ve lived that. I’ve been in Connor’s shoes. What Wrath was about was both easy for me, and was the hardest thing in the world.

Silence is different. Where Wrath was external – about something outside of Connor (and me) – Silence is very much internal. It is about Connor’s own despair and survivor’s guilt. More than that: it is about the search for some form of faith and meaning in life, both for Connor and for me.

It comes down to a “quest” to justify and fulfill the sense that life is meant to be…more.

How do I do that?

Good question.

The simple answer is: I lose the inhibitions. I pour myself, emotionally as much as mentally, into the writing.

But that answer is trite and facile.

The reality is that I have to think and plan. Any good story has meaning and subtext. It may or may not be obvious, but I guarantee you: if you remember a book (or play or movie…) it said something to you.

But when said story gets preachy, or – worse, by far – self-indulgent? The journey from memorable to shitty happens at Warp 9. I try to very much keep that in mind. When I plan out the scenes, I (try to) ration out the emotion and subtext as much as I do backstory and exposition.

It ain’t always easy. Err, it ain’t ever easy, to be honest. But then again, that’s why writers get paid the…err, let’s just stop that line of thought right now. The damned real world is still lurking, in spite of my best efforts to ignore it…

When you get right down to it, hitting the right tone and level of subtext with Silence is a real challenge for me. In some ways I’m not quite as openly invested as I was with Wrath: the memories of those suicides that touched me personally are very real, and are in their own way concrete and “quantifiable.”

In other ways, however, I am far more invested in Silence: the emotions and thoughts are mine, which makes them rather more powerful, if somewhat nebulous and hard to “use” on an intellectual level.

Not to mention the fact that I have to take a plot about greed and corruption* and factional/corporate politics and weave it on top of a story about guilt and pain and the quest for meaning…

*Err, yes, that is indeed a focus for all of Connor’s stories…

Maybe I should switch to decaf for this one.

The Dangers of Music

Since I just recently made the changes to this blog to reflect my interest in music (yes, as well as booze), I decided I should do a post on music itself.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not a music blog. This is not going to be a music blog. Quite simply, I have neither the access nor the knowledge to pull off something like that.

Nope, this is still a blog about writing. Specifically, a place for me to (kinda-sorta) trace the process of writing a novel. One specific novel: The Silence That Never Comes.

But…

But music is important to me, and to my writing. It is a key part of the environment and atmosphere I need in order to write. Just as much as I need a place with life around me (coffee place, taproom, etc…), I need to have the right music playing (blaring) in my ears.

Now, to the point: there is danger in music. Great danger. {queue the Yoda-music}

At least for me.

There is always the danger of losing myself in the music I’m listening to. If I can’t lose myself in it, why the hell am I listening?

I’ve written stories in the past that were not based so completely on emotion…not based, to be honest, on characters and ideas that are so overwhelmingly emotional to me. Those stories sucked.

It took Connor and Oz – okay, let’s be honest, it took Oz! – to make me write stories that truly mattered to me, and truly reflected my own emotions and perceptions.

And that made everything better.

But…

But those stories have a lot of music at their heart. When I listen to songs and albums that are important to me, I have two real choices: I either write, or I sit in silent contemplation like some crazy freakin’ monk and let the music take me (and my mind) away.

A great deal of the time it is the second, by the way.

Especially if I’m drinking…sorry, but that’s just plain reality. I know, I know, I get in trouble for “glorifying” booze, but the simple fact is that it is a part of life.img_0139 Yes, Ben Franklin was right: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

The same lowering-of-inhibitions that makes me the most attractive human in the bar, however, also makes me throw myself into the emotion and meaning of the songs with which I have surrounded myself.

In the end, it comes down to a simple choice: focus on the music, or focus on the writing.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat there, pen in hand and paper at the ready*, but my mind lost in the music…and in the imagery it brings.

*Remember, I use different ways to write for different things: hand-writing for background and supporting material, typing for the story itself (and for these posts).

When I am writing scenes this is, thankfully, less of a problem. I obsess about my characters, and about my stories. Very little has the power to pull me away from writing them. The other, supporting stuff however? That’s a different story.

God forbid I start talking (or thinking) about editing….

Talking about editing is, in my mind, like talking about burying the dead. It’s necessary – vital, even – but I really don’t want to do it myself.

I should probably point out: I am writing this particular post at this particular time because I was sitting there on the patio, enjoying the sun and trying to write, and I got too deep into the music…

Maybe 600 words I wrote. Even handwriting, I should do double or triple that in a single sitting. If I’m typing, it’s more like 3,000 words…

That’s the big challenge in my life*: using the music to help me write, but not letting it take control. If I ever figure out that balance, I’ll be fucking gold.

*Bills? Failed romances? Pshaw…child’s play! I can ignore those and pretend they don’t exist. Music, on the other hand, not so much…

Unlikely Places

Sorry I’m late with the post today…

You see, there was this tiger – a whole pack of tigers! – and these defenseless babies, and I was the only one around to help…

Err, never mind.

I was monkeying around with video games the other night (not a terribly rare occurrence, I grant you) when I happened to grab a copy of one of this month’s free PS-Plus game called This War of Mine.

Now, I had heard of this game before so I knew what I was in for…but it still managed to surprise and impress me. I’m not going to review the game itself, other than to say that it is very good and well worth playing, but rather mention how that game got me thinking about something in short supply in games…and, all too often, in books and movies, too.

Emotion. True, honest, biting, hit-you-in-the-face emotion.

Too often writers – and directors, and game producers – confuse adrenaline and engagement with emotion. Not the same thing. Not by a long shot.

This War of Mine is a game about war. But – and this is a big BUT – it is not about running around shooting people in the face. It is about surviving, and in this latest version about protecting the helpless. It was written by people who grew up during the war in Sarajevo, and is based very heavily on their experiences, as well as on other accounts of cities held long under siege.

You don’t look for ammo, you look for food. You don’t build bunkers, you scavenge wood to build beds. And when the kids come to your door looking for food, and for a bit of warmth in the midst of winter? Yeah, they nailed the emotion of that.

It is all about honesty: being honest to the circumstances surrounding your player – or your reader, for those of us who write – as well as being honest to your characters and to the world you created.

I have played thousands of games, but how many stick with me? A handful…and each of those held emotion and honesty that rose far above the game itself. Can you feel that intensely in a game, I hear you ask? You bet your ass.

Just a bare handful of books and movies have inspired in me the emotion and pain – the grief and celebration – that came from one short, simple game: That Dragon, Cancer. If you’ve never heard of it, change that. Play it…but be warned, it will break you. It is far more than a game, it is an experience. It is grief at the death of a child…and a celebration of his life.

For anyone who dismisses video games as shallow and soulless, those two titles are my immediate reply. They are also a lesson to those of us who write: you can very much create a world of honest and powerful emotion no matter your genre or medium. Let’s be honest – many folks out there dismiss sci-fi and fantasy, just like video games, as being cheesy schlock. And, okay, many of those stories are, sadly, schlock…but that does not change the fact that you can deliver something powerful.

And that is what we should always aspire to create: an experience. It is the desire to create that depth of experience, that honesty about life and pain and love, that drives me to write. It permeates every character I create, and is the subtext to every scene I imagine. Shit, why else would anyone bother to do this to themselves?

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.