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!

The Bellowing Of Horny Males

The bison are horny. No, really…the rut is starting early this season, and the bison are starting to gather in a couple of the larger valleys for what can only be described as a giant (in every sense of the word) orgy.

Picture a shaggy-furred, two-thousand-pound Austin Powers and you start to get an idea about an adult male about this time of year. They start making this loud, strange almost-but-not-quite-bellowing sound while they follow the fertile females around like lovestruck teenagers.

The employee dorms are not, it must be said, a whole lot different. From bellowing to following around to, well, orgies, it’s pretty much the same the thing.

Both are funny as hell.

Ever watch a twenty-eight year old man make a complete ass of himself over a nineteen year old girl who has zero interest in him? It’s pretty damned entertaining…not to mention reaching entirely new levels of pathetic.

Now, I do happen to have a hard and fast rule against fishing off the company pier, so I get to remain purely a member of the audience. Sitting around and watching this all, however, is far from boring. Heckling and mocking all these proceedings happens to be one of my favorite non-hiking activities right now.

Hell, even the handful of gay couples have added their own drama and spin. If I ever decide to turn to writing romance, I’ve got enough for a five book series after just three months of this!

All I know is that by then end of this summer, there will be exactly zero new marriages…and zero divorces. Pretty much everyone will go out the way they come in, and there’s something right about that. The married folks are still married…the single folks are still single…and the desperate are still desperate.

Yep, the universe is still chugging right along. Now, if we happened to get as many “Yellowstone babies” as the bison will, things might be a bit different…

At any rate, this ersatz-Saturnalia does get me to thinking about love interests, and about romance. Especially about how those two things need to be organic to the work. One thing I cannot stand, as a reader, are those stories where a “beautiful and spunky” love interest is shoe-horned in just because someone decided that every story has to have one.

Spare me.

More than ever, I keep falling back on (what is to me) Rule #1: do what is right for your story, and for your characters. Don’t put a damned romance in if it doesn’t belong. Don’t saddle your protagonist with a love interest that, well, wouldn’t interest him/her in other circumstances.

Honestly, the best love story is the one that makes sense. Then again…not a single one of the ever-changing, ever-humorous relationships I’m watching develop and disintegrate in the dorms makes any real sense either.

Crap, now I want to write a protagonist who is brave, brilliant, supremely capable…and is a complete cheap-slut.

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.

Fat, Drunk, Dumb and Lazy

A nice load of artisanal bread, some good locally made Brie, a few slices of prosciutto, and a six-pack of a nice beer (Bozone Select Amber Ale, if you’re wondering). Screw the employee dining room, I’m doing my own thing tonight.

The thunderstorms are gone, the sun is back, and I’m off work.

The Chinese tourists are very put off by my meal choice, and the hiker-trash (of which I am a proud member) are all trying to pretend disdain, but have so far shown only envy. I learned many, many things in my time and travels in Europe, but most of all I learned how to picnic. I mean really, really picnic. I’d have a nice Spanish Rioja with me if only I could find one…but I’ll settle for a quality beer.

Remind me to tell you about the picnics I pulled off in southern France: I ate (and drank) better on ten bucks there than I do on a hundred here!

Ahhh…first world problems…I love ‘em. And, no, my life does not suck at this point.

Shit, I could be in an apartment back home, bitching about the heat and doing the same things over and over again.

My brain wouldn’t have stood for that, and my soul sure as hell wouldn’t have. About the only downside I have at the moment (besides crappy internet and hungry/horny bears) is that the writing itself is suffering a bit.

Oh, not the quality…not the words. Those are coming just fine. No, it’s the vision. Dark, bitter and cynical sci-fi just doesn’t flow all that naturally up here. Now, if I was writing that fantasy series floating in the back of my mind…

That being said, I am back to making progress. Crap, some of my friends up here won’t let me not make progress: they force me to sit here and write. I can’t help, however, how the surroundings, and the changes in my own mood, effect the work. Connor is developing a hint of a lighter side, and is grinding away all those edges, both the rough and the sharp.

There’s a bit from a song (yes, there’s always a song, just like there’s always a but)…admittedly, it was written about a trip to Prague, but it still applies for me. Not to mention the fact that I can, personally, also attest to just what magic and changes Prague can work on you:

The twilight of our youthful days
Books and bridges burned
And records smashed

I’m fat and drunk and dumb and lazy
Digging deep way past the petty cash
But there’s not too many nights like these
When you know you have it way too good

Oh, let it revive me
Carry on, carry in the fire
Oh, let it revive me
Finding peace for a little while

—Prague (Revive Me), Dave Hause, Resolutions

 

The Evil Of Soup

Noodles…and, no, I don’t mean the good stuff. I’m talking about the cheap-ass “pour in hot water and have instant ramen” type stuff. Yeah, yeah – we all lived on that stuff at one time or another in our lives. I know I did.

But, for the love of all that’s holy, does it have to be so bad?

Let me paint a picture for you: roughly 4.5 million visitors go through Yellowstone in a year. And, to all intents and purposes, every single damned one of them comes into this store and gets noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner…all at the same time.

The hordes of tourists – all pushing and shoving and fighting to get their noodle-bowl first – are not even the worst part. The worst part? The smell.

No, really: the smell. How did I ever eat that crap?

The store’s cashiers, stockers and food service people are way too busy to take care of the damned noodle stand, so guess who gets to try and keep it cleaned and stocked? Good guess.

Every single time I walk past the place, I have to stop to clean and stock…all while gagging on the smell and getting shoved aside by hungry tourists. It’s enough to remind me why I’m an introvert…

Now, why on earth am I talking about the stench of cheap, instant noodles? Because, all too often, we writers forget that folks have senses other than eyes (and the occasional ear). How many stories talk about the smell of a place? Or the feel?

Honestly, the sense of smell can be just as evocative and memorable as sights and sounds. Whether I ever do another season working up here or not, I will remember two things about the store itself: the complete lack of air circulation in a 60+ year old building, and the stench of noodles.

And the noodles are worse…far, far worse. I’d gladly sweat my ass off every single day if it meant I didn’t have to walk by that damned noodle stand ever again.

Hmm…I thought about doing something serious here, a brief snippet to capture the feeling and smell of the store. My brain didn’t cooperate:

From sun to shade, the temperature dropped about twenty degrees. He pulled the hat from his head and wiped ineffectively at sweat-matted hair. The hike had left him tired, dirty and starving. But mostly starving. He needed something – anything – and he needed it fast.

He stepped through the door, dodging young kids and grandmothers as he squeezed between the two lines waiting impatiently for their chance at the registers. His stomach growled, and his legs felt weak. Something…anything…even a goddamned overpriced granola bar!

The crowd was a pain in the ass, every single one seemingly determined to keep him from reaching the ready-made food. It was a weaving, circuitous route he took. Faster to walk twice the distance than to fight upstream against all those pushing for the exit.

The beer fridge almost pulled him off the hunt – almost. As much as he wanted a drink, however, he needed food more. The briefest of sighs, and he left behind the Jennie’s Lake lager and the Bitch Creek brown. Later, when urgent needs were settled. When he didn’t feel like a weasel was eating him from the inside out.

He felt like a hero finally reaching the tower with the sleeping princess when he found the soup aisle. And when he’d grabbed one of those big, plastic bowls? He’d just slain the biggest fucking dragon in the place. Now he just had to escape, had to fight through the hordes of guards to reach the safety of the Kingdom of the Microwave.

Something began to build, however. A sense…a feeling…an odor. What fell beast lay in wait? What diabolical trap would he face?

That evil built, became all but overwhelming. Thirty people there were, all using two microwaves to heat soup. All the exact same soup…all the soup he himself held in his sweating, shaking hand.

The stench hit him in a wave. It was almost physical, that smell. Sickly, greasy…like a fire in a barn full of animals. Like the worst day in the slaughterhouses outside of Chicago.

He wanted to wretch, wanted to flee…but he was hungry, dammit!

He continued to wait in that line, started to push forward a bit, to claim a place as far ahead as he could. Hey, it was working for the little grannies – one had even stabbed him with the handle of her cane just to use his moment of shock to move ahead.

And the smell continued to build.

Thank God he had quit drinking early last night. He didn’t think he could take the place with a hangover. A headache and general queasiness to go with that smell? Yeah, that would be a good idea.

Only one person ahead, now. Hunger built until it had taken control of his mind. His eyes saw nothing but the microwave just ahead…

The rest of his body? The rest of his body was crying – screaming – to leave, to get out.

The dragon was still alive, and it was pissed. The air felt thick: thick with grease and salt, thick with the smells of nothing natural, thick with evil. His hands suddenly felt heavy, that plastic bowl starting to grow in weight until it dragged at his arms.

He had to do this, he had to eat!

The tiny granny fetched her soup from inside the microwave and moved away with a smirk for him. Psychotic bitch.

A tear at the packaging, then, and his bowl was open and ready. The smell, however, the smell from that granny’s bowl lingered. It had combined with the thousands before her, had permeated even the wood and plastic of the counter. Just a touch and the man felt soiled, dirty. Was that stain on his skin, or had it penetrated all the way into his very soul?

Water in the bowl…bowl in microwave…a couple of minutes to heat…

He started to shake and sweat. A burp, tiny and subtle, but one that brought with it a bit of bile from below. What the hell? He tried to settle himself, to take a deep breath.

That was a mistake.

He broke into a fit of coughing, wanted nothing more than water to drink..and to wash. The grease was everywhere, the evil filling every pore. He was gagging now, barely able to breathe.

DING

A trembling, palsied hand on the small door. A brief pull and it snapped open. Not a bowl of noodles did that door release, but a raging demon on the attack.

He wretched, had to lean on the counter to keep from passing out. His stomach continued to heave, and the other organs decided that now was a good time for some internal solidarity: his lungs shut down, his heart began to pound. Hell, even his fucking spleen decided to not do whatever it is that spleens do.

Inside that cloud, however – inside that demon – still hid his bowl of soup. Still hid the lunch he so badly needed.

He commanded an arm to move, to reach. The arm refused.

His legs had had enough. Fuck you brain, they said, we’re out of here.

The bowl of noodles laughed at him with maniacal glee.

Men and women were pushed aside. Children simply run over. The only pause in his flight was to kick aside the psychotic granny’s cane. Out of the store he ran, pursued all the while by the taunting, evil laughter of a $1.69 bowl of soup.

A Sqirrel? Really?!

Remember when I described this place as freshman year at college?

Yeah, that is most definitely holding true.

I just did something I haven’t done since that…err…entertaining year of my life: I had a random, booze-filled night of D&D. Yes, you heard that right…Dungeons and Dragons.

I’m a nerd. Get over it. I did.

That being said—and in spite of having done some writing for RPG video games—I haven’t done an actual D&D session in 20+ years.

Holy shit, was it hilarious.

Let’s see: you have a transgender guy running the game as DM…a married couple playing two characters…an introvert writer…and, just to round things out, the most socially awkward, anxiety-prone human being ever born. Yep, D&D at its finest!

SQUIRREL!

No, really – a damned squirrel just ran across my foot! Brave little bastard.

God, I do love this place.

Anyway, back to my semi-drunk-post.

As writers, we have to come up with a wide array of characters. All works of life, all types of people…

But one of the traps into which many of us fall is the urge to create “strong” characters. Yes, they serve the purposes of the story. Yes, we even give them flaws and problems. But how often, and how effectively, do we mirror the incredible array of the flawed and the screwed-up?

An antagonist that picks his nose…

A protagonist with chronic bad breath…

A love interest with the fashion sense of someone from “Cops”…

You get it: all those little things that we don’t like in the world. Those same little things can give depth and reality to the characters we create, so why are they so seldom employed?

I don’t know either, but it seemed like a really good thing to think about while I sit here and watch the sun set with a beer in my hand and a squirrel trying to eat my ankle.

As a word of warning, it’s probably time for another snippet post. Look for that on Monday!

The Ruts Into Which We Fall

Like a lot of people, I’m a creature of habit. While I love new places and new experiences, there is also something truly comfortable about doing the same thing, and going the same places, every day. No, that doesn’t make sense for someone who craves travel and new experiences…and it doesn’t have to. It’s my life, I can be as inconsistent and silly as I want.

Even up here – even in the midst of all of this variety – there can come those ruts. I was out for my solo hike on Monday. In order to get to the specific mountain I wanted to climb, I had to take a trail I’ve walked 3-4 times already. I didn’t realize until I was almost all the way to the start of my “real” hike, but I had ignored the entire trail behind me.

It had become old-hat for me, something in the “been there, done that” category. It had become a rut. Not a single picture taken…not even a moment to pause and savor the view out over the alpine meadows. Not a moment to just sit by a stream and contemplate.

That’s dangerous: if living in Yellowstone can become like that, what other parts of life are at risk?

Writing, for one.

We’ve all read those stories, and those series, where nothing really changes. Oh, the locations change, as do the details, but the heart of it all? That stays the same: the characters think the same, act the same. The problems and challenges arise the same way, are solved the same way. You could almost open to any chapter at random and know what is going to happen.

It’s easier than you think to fall into that. The ease of doing the same thing over and over – and, yes, the insanity of it (thanks, Einstein!) – is all too alluring. Plots and challenges and locations have to change, have to have variety and originality, if the story is not to be one big rut.

Even more, however, do characters have to change. We writers often refer to that change as growth, but that is nothing more than a conceit. It’s nice if our protagonists and major characters can grow – learn wisdom and care and all that – but in no way is it required.

Oh no, that change can just as easily be negative: the businessman who turns to violent vigilantism, the bank teller who turns to theft, the housewife who becomes a prostitute. None of those are “growth”, but all can make for interesting stories. Actually, all have. I’ll leave you to figure out the allusions.

Okay, so why the the topic of ruts?

My main character isn’t changing as much as I’d like…and I realize just how much that is my fault. Sometimes a character just can’t change, but Connor most certainly can. Hell, the changes in him over the first book are why he is still alive while Oz is dead. But my writing of him has fallen into a rut: he’s the same kid he was a year ago, and no one could go through those events, let alone a year in prison, and be the same person. No one.

The biggest problem is that I look on Connor almost like…well, almost like a parent. And like most parents, I still see the kid he used to be rather than the man he is. That is a failing in the writer – in the parent, if you will – and not in the character himself. Now I just need to fix it.

Douglas Adams used to joke that if you’re having trouble coming up with interesting characters, change your brand of coffee. Well, I’m having trouble realizing and capturing the changes and growth in my main character…I think I need to change my brand of beer…

A Little Lullaby; or, Why Won’t This Work?!

[Note – I’ve been trying to get some pictures posted since Saturday night…no luck. God, I hate cell phones right now. I have 2-3 posts worth of pictures built up, so expect a deluge as soon as I can get the damned upload to work right. Until then, I’ll have to dust off an old, old post that’s been sitting in my Drafts section since about Christmas!  So, in the interests of getting something to post (albeit a day late), here you go…]

I’ve never mentioned just why I gave this blog the name I did. Believe it or not, there are reasons. And, as ever, those reasons have lines from various song to help bring them to life…one specific song, in fact, in this particular case.

The lines in question, for the blog itself, are:

“That’s when I know that I have to get out
Because I have been there before
So I gave up my seat at the bar
And I headed for the door”

Now, this song has a lot more going for more it. Which is probably appropriate, given that it’s eight minutes long. There are other lines/thoughts in the song that also have impact and influence. Some have come into play with Connor and Oz, while others are more specific to myself.

Perhaps the most important line of the song, at least to me as a person and a writer who is far more a dreamer than someone practical and grounded, is:

“If you’ve never stared off into the distance
Then your life is a shame”

Believe it or not, this song did not actually make into the playlist I was listening to when I created Connor & Oz. That does not mean, however, that it had no influence on them. It is, after all, a favorite of mine:

“The price of a memory
Is the memory of the sorrow it brings”

“If dreams are like movies
Then memories are films about ghosts”

“You can see a million miles tonight
But you can’t get very far”

By the way, points given for recognizing the song from the title of this post. Serious, serious bonus points given if you recognize it from the lyrics themselves. And, yes, recognizing the song makes you just as damned old as I am!

The song in question is, of course, “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” by Counting Crows.

 

 

You Can’t Outrun Who You Are

IMG_0163Enough’s enough.

I give up.

Take this job and shove it.

I quit.

We’ve all been there. Hell, we’ve all very likely been there more than once. There was this one job, way back in college…

Never mind, let’s…err…not discuss that particular incident.

Bad jobs aside, that “I quit” moment can come all-too often in the other spheres of our life just as much as it does with work. I have, for instance, mentioned my serial bachelorhood more than once, I believe.

But what happens when that moment hits you as a writer? Writing isn’t, for me, a job; it’s who I am far, far more than what I do. So what happens when you face that Johnny Paycheck moment in regards to the words? That’s more than the song, that’s more than walking out on a shitty job, that’s real.

I hit that moment.

Oh, I fought it and fought it. I did whatever I had to to balance the “real world” with the writing. But still everything paled and faded. The words and emotions and thoughts weren’t the same.  I wasn’t even connecting with myself, let alone with a reader.

I’ve said it before: I write this blog for others, but I write the stories for me. When even that fails, something has to give.

I had to give up, I had to shift my focus and my efforts. I had to quit.

I quit the real world.

As writers we always talk about the stakes for our characters. What do they have to lose? What is at stake?

Well, for me the stakes were huge: I had writing to lose.

I gave up everything else instead. I put my life into storage, grabbed a couple of bags and agreed to a deal to live and work in Yellowstone for the next six months.

It’s made all the difference.

The words are back, and the honesty and truth of the emotions. I work my ass off five days a week…I hike and camp and drink my ass off the other two days…and I write every chance I get.

Wait, you thought I was gonna quit writing? Are you nuts?

It’s who I am.

Ruts, And The Strangers You Meet

I’ve talked a bit before about characters, and about the thought and effort we put into them. But just as important are the assumptions we make about them…assumptions both as readers and as writers.

Jumping with both feet into a an entirely new group of folks, very few of whom know each other, is one hell of a way to start testing your assumptions and judgements about people. It is, honestly, like going to summer camp…just one with plenty of booze to smooth over the awkward bits (and create other awkward bits).

For someone like me, it is also a topic of some interest to expand that thought and wonder how my assumptions about strangers affect those I make about my own characters. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I also weigh all these strangers and new folks for personalities and life experiences to use for my characters…

People surprise me…all the time. In many ways that’s a good thing, since it means I’m not as jaded and cynical as I like to pretend. In other ways, it’s not so good since it means I probably made an ass of myself about them in the first place.

I think we can all agree on the need to be fair and honest in those snap judgments we make, and in the value of that fairness. But to those who read or write, or just plain dream, I will reiterate the broader question I posed above:

How often do you treat the characters that matter to you as strangers? How often do you step back to examine and reevaluate the snap judgments you made about them in the first place? Remember: good characters – characters that are complete and whole – should talk to you, should have depth and demands of their own.  Just like real people. Just like the strangers you meet.

I made assumptions and a snap judgment about one of my characters in Wrath & Tears that I regret to this day. The flaw is not so fundamental that I can’t go back and fix it, but it does mark a failure on my part to let her stand and tell her own story.

I knew, after all the revisions and edits, that I had not done her justice, but it wasn’t until I started trying to think about the assumptions I’ve made about the folks I’ve met up here in the park that I forced myself to really go back and look at her.

You never realize just how much of a rut you can fall into: a rut of people, places and things as much as of thought and experience. I had fallen into seeing and talking to the same people in the same places over and over. A couple of workers put together a “movie night” last night, and I was sitting and having drinks and a good time with several folks that never would have entered my orbit back home in my usual “rut”.

I love it. As a writer I love it, and as I person I need it. I joked about this in Monday’s post, but it really is like summer camp. Or better yet, your freshman year in college. You are, pretty literally, forced into close confines and friendships with folks from far outside your usual norm.

That is an experience and a skill that far too many of us who’ve made it through those early-twenties years tend to forget. Especially when you’re of the more…ahem…introspective type.