So…I feel like shit.  High fever, body aches, massive fatigue, ongoing cough…  The worst, however, is the shortness of breath.  I can’t freaking breathe, and it absolutely is killing me.

Wanna know how I’m dealing with it?

Not well.


I was sitting there on the couch, a few minutes ago, listening to music and accomplishing a whole lot of not much.  I honestly have been trying all day to put together a blog post worth writing — let alone reading! — and all day, I’ve failed.  I was sitting on the couch, then, and feeling pretty sorry for myself.

Music was blaring in my ears, a drink* was at my elbow, and the memory of just how many different ways I failed to write anything worthwhile today was echoing in my head.

*You’re not my doctor!  If I can’t drink myself silly during my own personal COVID nightmare, then I might as well skip this stupid virus!  Err…uhh…

As usually happens, it was a song that hit me, finally, and shook me out of my self-pitying torpor.

Don’t get me wrong, I still feel like shit.  I still hate the entire universe at this particular moment, but finally…

…but finally I have something to say.

The color of words.


Just how much booze is in that glass?! I hear you scream.

Not as much as you think.

Look, every writer has a different way of approaching the words.  As I’ve mentioned before, for me it is visually.  I’m a photographer outside of the words, and every time I envision a scene it is — pardon the unintended pun — in light of my experiences with a camera.  Much like the photos I take, my writing views the world in terms of contrast.

Every “good” picture I’ve ever taken has been a shot of contrast.  Contrast of color, of light and shadow, of material…

I have a picture I took once, of a flower — one single, struggling flower — in the train yard of Auschwitz.  That picture exemplifies, better than anything I’ve ever done, just how I view…well…the entire freaking universe.

A tiny, struggling bit hope — of love — surrounded by overwhelming pain and death.

Yep, that pretty much sums it up.

But what, I hear you cry, does that have to do with writing?

It means everything.

Look, every scene I write — every scene I read — has a color palette to it.  Just like a picture, or a movie, the colors and lighting of a written scene define it.  I’ve mentioned before the stories and writers I love:

The primary colors — the honest simplicity — of Eddings and Tolkien and Lewis…

The complex grays of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Dickens…

The dark, muted colors of Wolfe (#1) and Mann and Graves…

The almost painful brilliance of Twain and Wolfe (#2)…

Every single word is visual to me.  Certainly everything I write is run through the image processing part of my mind.  Every single scene I’ve ever so much as flirted with has a look and feel to it…and that look and feel is one of contrast.  I know I often describe my writing as dissonance, but it’s more than that…it’s contrast.

As you all know by now, I’m a movie buff.  Of the thousands of movies I’ve watched…

Of the millions of scenes I’ve watched…

Of the tens of millions of words I’ve read…

Of all that, do you know what it is that really sticks with me?

What sticks in the back of my mind as the ultimate dissonance — the ultimate contrast — for which I strive in my writing?

It’s an image, one single still, from an old(ish) movie:

No, really — if you haven’t yet watched it, screw your plans for tonight and go watch Empire of the Sun.  Every movie Spielberg has made has been great, but…this one…

Look, just watch the freaking movie, okay?

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…”


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.


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.

Random Writing Thoughts for a Random Friday

It’s a hard thing to keep in mind the concerns and worries of the world right now.  Yellowstone has been open for a couple of weeks, and it has been calling to me.

AF63D968-D103-408D-BF26-43F7EA4F3D3AThere’s nothing to wash away the effects of news and stress and worry like a hike beneath the lodgepole pines.  There’s nothing better to make COVID and Trump and the rest of the world’s idiocy disappear than returning to my old stomping grounds in Hayden Valley to search for signs of “my” wolf pack.

Oh, the wolves themselves might argue with that “ownership,” but I’ve been following and watching and studying this pack for years now.  Named Mollie’s Pack after a longtime wolf researcher, they are a small, tight knit group that is impressive as hell.

The pack might be small, but the wolves themselves are anything but; they are physically the biggest wolves in the entire Yellowstone ecosystem (which is several times larger than the park itself).  Most of the animals in Mollie’s Pack average around 130-150 pounds, and are tough as hell.  They’re big and tough because they have to be — they are the only pack that actively hunts and subsists on bison.

Two thousand pound bison.

C3439B3C-9669-4D67-88DF-769913F7548CLet’s put that in perspective: this is an animal the size of a medium-sized woman, taking down nature’s equivalent of a freaking tank.  What?  Not impressed, you say?

Go on out then, folks.  Go out and try it.  Go outside to the street, find the nearest hatchback, and try to “take it down” using only your teeth…while that hatchback is moving at top speed, trying to hit you.

Welcome to the wilds.

Which, happily, brings me to my writing thought for the day as I settle in to get some words on the page…


We tend to forget it in our regular lives.  We forget just how big a bison — or even an elk — truly is, until we’re standing next to one who is irritated and giving us the stink-eye.

We tend to forget just how hard life is without modern conveniences, until we have to walk twenty-five miles in rough terrain, and still make a fire and secure camp at the end of the day.

We tend to forget because those things — along with uncountable others — have no role in our day-to-day lives.  Hell, we tend to forget even those things that once used to be day-to-day concerns and activities because they have slipped into the mists of fading memory.

We tend to forget because our perspective changes even as we change.

Yes, that applies to writers, too.

We forget where we were in favor of where we are.  We forget the past in favor of the urgency of the now.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes that forgetting is a good thing.  I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: when I’m in the deep woods, off-trail and using just a map and what’s left of my wits to make my way, the rest of the universe slips away.  I focus solely on the moment because I have to if I want to make it back out.  The past and future are distractions that mean nothing at that point.

But when I come back…

…when I come back, I have to regain perspective.  I have to remember that life, the universe and everything* is more than just the next hill I need to climb, the rotting tree trunk under my feet, the curious grizzly snuffling among the trees…

*Thank you, Douglas Adams!

The question for us writers is how we effectively can we use that dynamic in our stories?

Far, far too often characters and settings in stories are too simple.  They’re pencil sketches, rather than full portraits, of folks who either never forget a thing, or all-too conveniently forget everything.  They, like the stories of which they are a part, are static and unchanging.

Jack Ryan never forgot anything.  He never forgot a single skill or fact.  The Ryan of Clancy’s last books could muster every single skill and fact at his command, whether mastered in the first book or the last.


Look, I like Clancy — well, I like his early stuff, the rest went downhill fast — but I used to be able to rebuild a carburetor without having to think about it when I was a kid.  Would I even know where to start on the thing today?  Nope, not a chance.  Put a broken carb in front of me and I’ll tell you to go find a freaking mechanic.

A poor character — a Mary Sue — would just fix the thing, even if the last time he or she touched one was thirty years ago.

Mary Sue characters — and their stories —lack the perspective that makes the real world…well…the real world.

I know a bison is a big freaking tank who can turn on you in an instant because I live that.  On the other hand, I have no idea what a real tank is like.  I’ve stood next to a handful of them, but not when they were in actual use.  I’ve certainly never driven one, and god knows, I’ve never been shot at by one.*  I know people who have been shot at by one, however, and I rely on their perspective if and when I need to write about that.

*Yes, I have been charged by an angry bison.  A handy tree and some creative cowardice solved that problem.

Some of the most interesting and educational things I have ever done are oral histories.  I had the chance, a few years ago, to interview a sailor who fought in a famous battle in the Pacific in WW2.  His words and story were powerful…but even more powerful was the journal he allowed me to read.  The words and memories of a man in his eighties were a whole lot different from the words and experiences of the twenty-something man writing that journal.

61757408-3125-4679-B796-8A24FAB74ACFThe details changed.  The memories, even, changed.  But the emotions…

My God, I still get the chills thinking about that…about not just his experiences, but his words and emotions.  His reality, both then and now.

What does an eighty-year-old remember as important, versus what a twenty-year-old notes as important?  That is perspective.  That is reality.  That is what we as writers have to note and use.

One of the pieces of writing advice I once offered on this blog was to write a funeral/memorial.  Not just any funeral, but one for your main character(s).  Write the funerals, and the eulogies delivered.  What did those characters accomplish that folks actually remember?  With a new perspective, years later, what did they mean?

Yeah, yeah, I know…I’m weird because I write shit like that; I write the end first.  But writing the end is…enlightening.  Writing the impact your characters have makes those early scenes — those days of “innocence” and ignorance — that much more fun.

{Edits — correcting crappy spelling and grammar because editing sucks…}