The Whole Wide World

This afternoon I cleared 50,000 words on Princess of Fire. Now I can go party (in a strictly non-alcoholic manner, of course) with a clear conscience.

I love films, but poverty and the demands of life sometimes mean that I completely miss films I really want to see when they are first released. Sometime they’re so obscure or art-house that I then have trouble locating them. I just recently tracked down one of these, The Whole Wide World, from 1996, about the on-again/off-again friendship and near-romance between Robert E. Howard, pulp author and the creator of Conan the Barbarian, and Novalyne Price, a local school-teacher and budding writer, in the middle 1930’s in Texas. Vincent D’Onofrio plays Robert E. Howard and Renee Zellweger Novalyne Price.

The film itself is very small scale, and it has some awkward directorial moments, as well some jumps in continuity that made me wonder about deleted scenes. The movie was Dan Ireland’s (more noted as a producer) first directorial credit, which probably explains these issues.

On the other hand, Zellweger and D’Onofrio are both great as their respective characters. But it is D’Onofrio who especially captures Howard. There is a blustering vulnerability about his Howard, who seems to be burning up with imagination and the worlds he creates. He is also contemptuous of the ordinary central Texas world in which he grew up, which causes all kinds of sparks when that contempt strikes up against Price’s more conventional sensibilities. There is a studied quality to the Howard’s disdain for the mundanes around him, exactly as if it is, at least in part, a shield thrown up by someone whose social skills are questionable in the first place.

In other words, D’Onofrio’s Howard is a nerd, blustering and posing his way through life, decades before PCs or the internet, with only his imagination and his writing to lift him out of the dull universe in which he finds himself.

The film works very well when it shows us the rocky path the friendship between Howard and Price takes. These two have an attraction to one another, but Howard’s ‘I have to walk my own path’ swagger and disdain for what he perceives as the hypocrisy of mundane society constantly sabotages their friendship.

Howard as an insecure, vulnerable man who has a talent that transcends his surroundings is a powerful, and satisfying, theme, one that resonated with me. I know exactly what it was like to be the freak who reads that “weird stuff” (mostly Heinlein in my earliest days), in a conservative Southern milieu. This is not to compare my talent with Howard’s, but to suggest that anyone who has had to hang on to what they find good and beautiful in the face of disapproval will see at least a bit of themselves in Howard.

The film also does a great job demonstrating exactly why writers are often just a little odd, as it shows us what is going on in Howard’s head as he creates. In one scene Howard is physically blocking out one of his boxing stories (he wrote across several genres for the pulp magazines of the period)– unfortunately, while he is walking down a street, drawing disapproving stares as he does. His created universe is, at that moment, more powerful than the one in which he breathes and walks. Any writer can relate to that.

Price and Howard’s potential relationship eventually founders, in no small part because Howard is distracted by the care of his mother, who is dying of tuberculosis. D’Onofrio’s portrayal of Howard in relationship to his mother adds even more depth to his character, as he cares for her with great tenderness.

Of course, it was when his mother went into her final coma that Howard killed himself. There are plenty of theories of why he did so, but all that matters now is that his suicide took a great talent out of the world, one that might have done much more had he been able to find a way through and past the pain of that moment (Howard was only thirty when he died).

At the end of the film Price, in graduate school in Louisiana, receives a telegram that Howard is dead– and the ‘what might have been’ remains just that, although there is a grace note of gratitude, as Price contemplates a Texas sunrise, for what we did receive.

We need more movies about writers and their lives. I think more people would be inspired to write, and write well, if they understood how you can create whole worlds from the most ordinary of experiences.

Even central Texas.

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Disaster, disaster, too many disasters….

I am now at 48,000-plus words on Princess of Fire, and well positioned to reach my self-imposed goal of 50,000 words by end of day– assuming the very low-key celebration I’ve been invited to this evening doesn’t get in the way. I am not a drinker (Southern Baptist Sunday School does have an effect on people), so inebriation will be no excuse.

This little literary surge has been instructive, in a number of ways. With some extra effort I have managed about 2000 words a day most days, a very fast pace for me. Once day I hit 3000 words, which is unheard of (it also left me in pain. I need a better chair). As a demonstration of what I can do when I put my mind to it, it has been encouraging.

More importantly, though, in the process of writing as fast as possible, I realized that my conception of Fire may have issues. As I originally conceived it, the action focuses mostly on Kathy, having to act as a leader in a crisis– but her actions are often dependent on events far away, to which she is essentially a spectator. And so far that has had the unfortunate result that I am doing a lot of telling, and not showing– e.g., Kathy listening to broadcasts of remote disasters. You can only do that so many times before the reader starts to wonder if they’re reading about the actual protagonist.

The solution is probably to spread the narrative of what is actually a series of interlinked disasters, military and natural, out across several viewpoint characters, not just Kathy. I’ve done this before and I have confidence (egad, did I just use that word in reference to myself?) I can make it work, but it will entail major changes in the structure of the novel and the character set. But the really interesting point is that it was the process of actually writing the novel that revealed the flaw in my conception. That’s a lesson to take to heart.

Fortunately, though, all these changes are a problem for the second draft. On with the first. 🙂

Later.

My disappointment with Peter Jackson

I am back to making progress on Princess of Fire, although I discovered that trying to write in any serious way on Christmas Day is problematic at best. I hope to begin really cranking on Fire tomorrow.

Sometime back I suggested that I would not be going to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, assuming that it would be the same sort of bloated disappointment as the first installment (An Unexpected Journey).

But some friends of mine saw Desolation and liked it a great deal, and reviews have been generally more favorable than An Unexpected Journey, it’s a Christmas tradition in our family to see a movie Christmas day (last year it was Les Miserables), and so I broke down and went to see it today.

Why, Mr. Jackson? Why?

SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***

I mean it. Spoilers. Really.

Desolation is not as miserably expository as An Unexpected Journey, much of the movie works as an action piece, the world creation is good, the movie’s pace overall is a good deal better, and there are genuinely funny moments. Evangeline Lilly does a good job as the elf woman Tauriel– but as a non-canonical character, she is completely unnecessary, as is her budding (and doubtless doomed) relationship with Kili, one of Thorin Oakenshield’s dwarven followers. This is where I basically choked on Jackson’s adaptation– he has introduced too many unneeded elements, both canonical and non-canonical, apparently in the interest of making The Hobbit into a solid prequel for The Lord of the Rings (which the book never was), and to pad the material so as to fill out three long movies. The pace is better, but by the last thirty minutes I was once again wondering how much longer this thing was going to go on. It didn’t help that at about that point in the movie the action began to, once again, look like a Disney theme-park ride. The outlandish physics of the final action sequence finally made my suspension of disbelief go spung. And while Smaug is huge, powerful, and terrifying, he’s absolute crap at killing anybody, as he spends long minutes chasing Bilbo and the dwarves around the inside of the Lonely Mountain without nailing a single one of them. The whole sequence is just a contrived mechanism to get Smaug out the door and off to fry Laketown– which is where the movie ends. When I saw the movie there were audible groans in the audience when people realized they’d have to wait a year for the next segment.

Sigh. I’ve seen suggestions that the studios made Jackson pad the material, so they could improve their profit margin. If so, the studio suits need to be exiled to the Moon. Or maybe Neptune. Whoever’s at fault, they have basically ruined this adaptation. The original book is about 95,000 words, a quarter of the length of The Lord of the Rings. Bloating the Hobbit movies out to the same length as the LOTR films destroys the spirit and sense of the book, and takes the story places I don’t believe Tolkien would have approved. Frankly, you could take out the non-canonical elements inserted into this film and make a whole extra movie out of them, and both movies would be better than what we got.

Doing an adaptation of a book into a movie is never easy. It is an act of translation from one form to another, and a lot can go awry. But it really seems as if Jackson, his screenwriters, and/or the studio bosses have completely disregarded the spirit of The Hobbit to create something with the same name, but lacking its charm, its language and its clean, tight structure, in pursuit of a bogus epic. All-in-all, another severe disappointment.

And, once again, no one consulted me. Somebody needs to give me a call. Seriously.

Later.

The Writer’s Needful– Part Five– The Web of Experience

Thirty-six years ago, when I was the most naive newbie tank crewman in the United States Army, I had a friend by the name of Greene, from Boston (or Bahston). He and I were the only sci-fi nerds in our troop, so we basically bonded, despite the fact that he was years older than my nineteen, as well as a socialist and an atheist (the Army expanded my horizons in many ways). Even then I knew I wanted to write, and I tried to share some of my early scribblings with him. Greene basically felt it his duty to inject some realism into my wide-eyed optimism, and one of the points he tried to impress on me was that many or most writers don’t really achieve success until they reach middle-age. At the time I remember thinking I have to wait until I’m thirty-five?

The mileposts on that road have moved a considerable distance since then….

But the point that Greene was trying to get through to me was important– life experience is critical to the growth of a writer.

When I was nineteen, because of the insular culture in which I grew up, I was very naive and out of touch with how most people lived. Getting dropped into the Army was a profound shock. My lack of experience showed in my writing, which was why Greene was trying to introduce some correctives into my thinking.

‘Life experience’ is another one of those topics you can Google and get a boatload of links. In fact, some helpful people at Goodreads have gathered up a few hundred quotes on life experience from writers and put them here. I’ll just steal the topmost from the list–

“A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”
― Stephen King

In the thirty-six years since my buddy Greene tried to talk me down out of my naivete tree, I can testify that the experiences of my life have informed and transformed my writing. Military service, college, failed relationships, marriage, academic success, academic failure, work, miscarriage, late-life fatherhood, all have fed into my writing. It doesn’t matter that most of my writing is in the sci-fi and fantasy genres; the mundane details of an ordinary life translate directly into richer detail in any imaginary universe, whatever the genre (I’ll tell you a secret– sci-fi has always been about people. Forget that ‘literature of ideas’ stuff).

Because I’ve lived and worked with some very interesting people, I have a wider palate of characters to draw on now than when I was nineteen. I have lived through, and survived, many, many mistakes. I know from the inside what failed relationships feel like. I know fear, because I tasted it the moment they told me my wife had pre-eclampsia and my daughter was coming into the world seven weeks early (update, fifteen years later: both are doing great). I know what it’s like to bury a father.

At this point, many, many young writers are probably dismayed, or crying foul, or saying “I have to wait until I’m thirty-five?” (Take it from me, you’ll get there sooner than you think). I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from writing just because they’re young. The first thing I want to say is that, if you want to be a writer, you can’t start too soon. Practice is critical, so if you can start as soon as you can string words into sentences, do so. No later than eight, I’d say.

The second thing I need to say about experience is that it is not just enough to live a number of years– everybody does that. The important thing a writer has to do with that experience is notice what is happening– in other words, to observe what life throws at you. Someone once said that writers are supposed to be good ‘noticers’. I like the word– to me it sums up one of the most important tools in a writer’s kit.

Jane Austen only lived to the age of 41, and she lived that short life within the confines of a small, middle-class country society of spinsters, gentry and ministers. It is generally agreed, however, that Austen produced great literature, and she did it by closely observing that society and fearlessly writing about it.

Shakespeare was probably not yet thirty when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. The film Shakespeare in Love is about ninety percent fiction, but I love it for how it depicts Shakespeare as a writer melding the experiences of his life into the creation of the play (and not scrupling at stealing a good line when he hears it). Tom Stoppard was one of the writers on the screenplay, and it shows.

S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was sixteen.

Christopher Paolini wrote Eragon at the age of fifteen.

The point is that, however much life experience you have, you can create powerful literature out of it if you observe it closely, and write honestly about it. Older writers just have the advantage of many more life lessons on which to draw. Personally, my own development as a writer was delayed because it took me a long time to understand the necessity and power of observing life closely.

So be of good heart, young writers– you can still write, and write well. You just have to work harder at it.

As for us older writers– well, we have less excuse if we screw things up.

‘Nuff said.

**********************************
With this post I think I have covered everything I want to say regarding a writer’s needfuls. I didn’t want to just repeat the standard advice you can get by googling “writing advice”– I wanted to talk about some of the habits of mind and qualities of spirit I think a writer needs. Again, however, nothing I discussed is original with me.

Ironically, doing one of these posts a day has once more put me behind on Princess of Fire. I am therefore setting myself a goal– I want to get to 50,000 words on Fire by January 1st. That would be about 14,000 words in 7 days. That will be a forced-march pace, but I want to give it a shot.

All bets are off, though, if I get a job.

Later.

The Writer’s Needful– Part Four– The Universe of Study

It might have been better to call this post “the universe of knowledge”, especially if “study” implies formal coursework somewhere, somewhen, in a formal institution of learning. That is not what I’m talking about, at least, not just. What I am talking about is what an author needs to know in order to write.

And that is not “the techniques of writing” nor “how to break into publishing” nor “how to market your books”. I am referring to the knowledge of truths and facts and how things– both material and immaterial– work. Most especially, knowing about the subjects on which you write.

Well, the answer to this one is simple.

You need to know everything.

Well, my work here is done….wait, you need that explained? Really? Oh, okay.

Let me put this succinctly– the possession of a deep understanding your specific subject, as well as a general understanding of the great mass of human knowledge, is essential to good writing.

I don’t usually go around quoting Hemingway, but this once something he said seems very appropriate–

“A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge….A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

Most of us will never be ‘great writers’, but the necessity of knowing what you’re talking about is fundamental to any writer. This is specific to the topic on which you write– whether it’s the meat-packing industry or nuclear physics– and in general for all of human knowledge. As Hemingway said, this is impossible in toto; but you have to come as close to it as you can.

In short, writers have to be educated.

Not necessarily formally educated– there have been many writers who had hardly any formal education whatsoever. Jane Austen never went to college. Neither did Mark Twain. Both, however, would have to be classified as learned people in their time and place. For another example, Abraham Lincoln had hardly any formal schooling, but he educated himself, and in his speeches and letters he created some of the greatest prose in the English language.

Certainly, formal education can be an advantage to a writer, but we can also multiply examples of men and women who have attended the highest educational institutions and remain ignoramuses. Obviously, a formal course of study is no guarantee that you will succeed as a writer, or anything else.

Perhaps mostly importantly, then, writers must be able to educate themselves.

Many or most writers are already readers– most of us come to writing through our reading. However, a writer needs to read not just in their favorite genre of fiction– they need to read broadly, to comprehend the shape of their own culture, to understand what has gone before, and to bring depth to their writing. A writer also needs the capability of intensively researching out specific issues as needed to round out their stories.

Everything you read, all the formal courses you take, and all the topics of interest you research will feed into your stories. Every history you read, every Shakespeare play you see, every language you stumble through, will lend depth to your fiction. The more broadly you spread your search for knowledge and understanding, the better your writing will be.

Let me share a personal example of what I am talking about– I have read a lot of history, particularly around military topics. At the moment, in preparation for a future novel in the same universe as the Divine Lotus series, I am reading histories on the British-Zulu War of 1979 and the French and Indian War. I am also reading a history on Reconstruction, which would be part of the background for a possible Civil War novel. None of these topics have anything to do with my current work in progress– they are preparation for works in the near to distant future. And these specific readings connect with and enhance the background I already possess in military history.

The consequence of not possessing a broad base of knowledge, and of not understanding whatever specific topics are involved in your writing, is shallow, ineffective prose, thin and transparent rather than deep and rich. This hold true for fiction and non-fiction; with non-fiction in particular this can result in catastrophically bad writing. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, readers interested in your topic will detect it immediately and rip your efforts to pieces.

Unfortunately, it’s evident from the mass of badly thought-out and written books available on self-published venues that all too many people are writing in ignorance, to put it bluntly. They have not taken the care to read, to study and to comprehend their topics. It’s the sort of thing that taints self-published books in all too many readers’ minds.

The solution to this for any writer is quite easy, though– read. Read everything. Read until your eyeballs fall out. Read, and think about what you’ve read, and feed it into your writing. Take classes as well, if possible, but above all, read. I guarantee you’ll not regret it.

Next topic: Experience.

Later.

The Writer’s Needful– Part Three– The Core of Persistence

In my previous post I talked about writers needing courage. This post is about persistence. I do believe for writers persistence and courage are linked, but I do not believe they are identical. Courage is about overcoming and surviving discouragement and disappointment; persistence is about the daily discipline that writing requires.

Persistence is actually a well-worn topic among writers and those who instruct others on how to write. Lewis Shiner once said that if someone can be at all discouraged from writing, then they should be. Bridget McKenna, years ago in a writing panel at Norwescon, told all of us eager young wannabe writers that getting published is 90% persistence (and if you can’t trust Bridget McKenna, damn it, who can you trust?). Google “writing persistence” and you’ll get a screenful of links to websites and videos on the topic.

But hold on– many of these sites talk about persistence in the context of getting traditionally published. Keep submitting, keep sending out your work, that sort of thing. But this is the new, glorious age of self-publication. Does perseverance mean anything when a new writer can take their very first ever short story and publish it online within 24 hours?

Yes, because persistence in writing has more dimensions than simply getting published. And it always has.

First, for the overwhelming majority of writers, learning to write takes time. Lots of time, lots of words, lots of trunk novels and short stories. Most of us learn to write by writing. To become competent as a writer, most of us need to persist and persist, through bad draft after bad draft, lousy grammar, awkward sentences approximately the length of the Great Wall of China, failed short stories and novel. The cliche is that your first million words are crap. The only variant I have seen on that is that it’s actually your first two million words that are crap.

The new opportunities for self-publishing have not changed this reality. If anything, this is proven by the quite simply enormous (and growing) pile of terrible-to-poor self-published works out there. If a writer wants to be other than a sad joke, they still need to learn the craft of writing.

Persistence is also part of the daily- or as near to daily as you can manage– discipline of writing. This is one of the hardest things a writer has to internalize. Writing is not dependent on inspiration or mood– it is a task you take on and do, the same way you go to a job or brush your teeth every day (at least, I hope you brush your teeth daily….). It took me years to learn this lesson myself, which is largely why I didn’t start writing in a serious way until I was well into adulthood.

If you are pursuing traditional publication, persistence is, indeed, needed, and, given the state of trad publishing, more than ever. If it was hard to get published thirty or twenty years ago, it is orders of magnitude more difficult now, as the publishing world petrifies into a living fossil, stuck in the adaptive rut of doing the same thing over and over again because it sold last go-around. The inability of traditional publishing to break out of that rut is leading thousands of authors to abandon trad publishing for self-publishing. It is very much like a torrent of water, dammed in one direction, finding an outlet in another. Another way to think of it is to say that people’s patience with a log-jammed process is not infinite.

Self-publishing, though, is not a golden road. Getting your writing in order, formatting everything correctly and uploading your story to Kindle or Smashwords is, unfortunately, no guarantee of winning an audience. The dirty secret about self-publishing– which isn’t much of a secret– is that getting noticed in the ever-widening sea of self-published material is very, very difficult. There is no sure-fire way to publicize a self-published work, certainly no one way that works for everybody, and building an audience takes time and patience– in other words, persistence.

Part of that audience-building is creating a body of work, instead of publishing a single story and retiring. That means more writing, and probably re-writing (certainly it does in my case). And so we come full circle back to the need to keep writing and to keep on learning how to write, because hardly anybody ever completely perfects this craft. In other words, once you’ve signed on as a writer, it’s for life.

Personally, I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

Next topic: Study.

Later.

The writer’s needful– Part Two– The foundation of courage

Cowardly Lion: What makes the Hottentots so hot? What puts the ape in apricot? Whadda they got that I ain’t got?

Dorothy, Tin Man and Scarecrow: Courage!

Cowardly Lion: You can say that again.

Of the writer’s needful things, perhaps the most counter-intuitive is courage. What’s so scary about writing? Writers just scribble down words, right?

Actually, though, if you have to really ask that question, you either haven’t been writing very long or you are just not paying attention.

Writing is lonely, scary and usually without immediate reward. In the first instance, you have to face the blank page. Whether it’s a piece of paper, or an empty computer screen with a blinking cursor, the first blank page is a horrifying challenge that frequently overwhelms writers. What if my stuff is not good enough? What if I sound like a jackass? If I actually put something on the page, will it be okay, or will I be revealed as a complete fraud? This is why writer’s block is so very terrible– usually it rears its head when something has challenged the writer’s (often) fragile grip on the self-confidence they need to start stringing words together– and getting back that confidence can be a terrible struggle.

A second source of fear is what others will think. Writing, if you’re doing it honestly, is baring your soul to potentially thousands or millions of strangers. We don’t usually think of it in such terms, but writing is a form of performance art. And the consequences of going onstage and blowing your lines (so to speak) can be devastating.

Once again, these are not original thoughts with me. One of the best books I know on writing, Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write, approaches the whole subject of writing as a problem in courage, how to find it, how to keep it, and how to use the fear of writing, or of what you are writing at the moment, in a positive way to empower your writing. I recommend this book to anyone who writes. Others have compared writing to a hero’s journey, or a warrior’s path. Whatever the metaphor, it’s widely understood that writing for public consumption is scary and difficult.

The only people who appear to be oblivious to this truth seem to be 1. very new writers who don’t know enough to be scared out of their wits, and 2. writers so sure of themselves (whether that certainty is justified) that they ride blithely above the terror that infects mere mortals. Both groups can be blind to what that fear is trying to tell us– that there are terrible pitfalls and hungry lions littering the writer’s path.

How, then, do you get past the fear? Mr. Keyes outlines any number of methods, and the precise constellation of techniques will vary from writer to writer. Personally, I get a lot of mileage out of telling myself that whatever I am writing at the moment is either a ‘doodle’, as if it’s a little squiggle I’m drawing on the margins of a notepad during a boring meeting, or that it’s just a draft, and all the evident problems with the piece will get resolved in subsequent drafts. I’ve also learned the hard way that perfection does not flow out the tips of my fingers; this encourages me to keep going even when I hate what I am doing and I’m sure I’m the worst writer since (insert your least favorite author here. I’m not going put mine in because I’ve already beaten up on Fifty Shades of Grey enough this week. Oops).

One lesson about fear that The Courage to Write highlights is that fear can actually be fuel for our writing, that if you write honestly about something that scares you, your writing takes off. Honesty of emotion, and tackling things that make you uncomfortable, can make for great prose. It’s a lesson, frankly, that I am still trying to internalize– it’s just too easy for me to keep things safe. But until I get past that reticence, I suspect my writing will not be all it could be.

One other aspect of writing that I group with courage is the necessity of growing a thick skin. Writers need this, and usually it’s one of the hardest items to acquire. Others might classify it with persistence, the next needful thing I intend to talk about, but I think of a thick skin as being able to take the critique that makes you feel like talentless cow-flop, thank the critique provider, and move on to the next critique. It’s the ability to pull the fiftieth rejection of your novel out of the mail, read it to see if it contains any helpful suggestions, file it and then send your novel out again the same day. It’s taking the one and two-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, again reading through them to see if they can help you make the story better, and then moving on, while keeping your ego in neutral and not responding to the reviewers, even if they’re obviously malicious (in fact, especially if they’re malicious, but that could be a whole other blog topic). If all that doesn’t take courage– like crawling forward while enemy bullets spatter around you– I don’t know what does.

So, brothers and sisters, if you’re scared when you write, good. It means you’re aware that you’re in danger, and that you need to find ways to press ahead. It may also mean that you’re closing in on something good. Pay close attention and listen to what your pounding heart is trying to tell you. You may score a major victory.

Next topic: Persistence.

Later.

The writer’s needful– Part One– the beauty of failure

This last week I basically hit my first roadblock with Princess of Fire— nothing major, mostly just real life pulling me away for its own nefarious purposes, as it is wont to do. I’m at 34,000+ plus words, whereas if I had maintained my original pace I would be somewhere in the vicinity of 39,000. I’m not overly dismayed, though– delays and setbacks are part of the process.

At one point this week I found myself posting a comment on a young lady’s blog, offering her advice on what to do about a short-story submission required for an application to a master’s program. When I was done, though, I had to stop and ask myself– who the hell am I to be giving anybody writing advice? I’m a self-published middle-aged geek who is certainly not setting the literary world on fire. ‘Obscure’ would probably be a generous adjective in describing me. And I can’t pretend that my own writing is an example of literary perfection. In a universe filled with first magnitude stars like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, I’m basically a brown dwarf. Do I have any substantive advice to offer other writers?

Well, maybe— if I stick to the things I know, and don’t try to get all fancy and highfalutin about it. I can honestly talk about the things that have impacted my writing. And since things like “you have to write” and “you have to build a social network”, etc., etc., have been done to death, perhaps I’ll just talk about needful topics a little off the beaten track (disclaimer– having said that, pretty much nothing I talk about will be original with me. I just don’t see these issues talked about a lot).

Okay, so, first topic– failure.

Unless you’re one of those (extending the astronomical metaphor here) very rare supernovas that suddenly explode out of nowhere, you are going to fail. And even someone who suddenly hits it big is not immune to failure in the objective sense– and, yes, I’m talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. In my opinion, you can make a ton of money and your writing can still be an utter disaster. So in my definition failure consists of failing to write, and failing to write well. If your measure of how good your writing is is how much money you make, go away. I have nothing to say to you.

If you apply yourself and stick with writing for any length of time, you are going fail over and over and over again– and your failure is going to take a myriad of forms– everything from the phrase that you just can’t get right, to the novel on which you write 50,000 words and then lose the mojo to carry it any further. Brilliant ideas that burn in your mind turn to wet mud on the page. You edit a novel for three months, publish it, and then discover that a piece of grammar on page 312 would embarrass a third-grader. And then some days you just can’t drag yourself to the computer.

At this point, you may be saying, Whoa, how is failure needful for a writer? Failure sounds like a lot of pain and humiliation.

It can be. But, as the chestnut says, in writing, as in any other endeavor, you really do learn more from your failures than your successes.

If you’re paying attention. If you don’t have blinders on, if you don’t keep telling yourself you’re the best thing in literature since Chaucer, if you’re not sure that every word you type is a shining pearl of prose. If you’re stuck in that sort of egocentric self-adulation, you will be blind to the horrors you commit on page.

When I started writing, many, many years ago (before cell phones, even) I was somewhere close to that egotism. It may have come from the fact that no one in my culture of origin wrote, or, at least, wrote the sort of stories that interested me. I had no personal reference points by which to judge myself. That, and some early praise that went to my head, kept me from judging my own work objectively for a long time.

Applying myself to writing in a serious way, though, eventually ground that egotism right out of me. The accumulation of failure after failure, rejection slip after rejection slip, at last got my attention and forced me to reconsider how I executed prose.

An important part of that grinding was the feedback I got from other writers, online and in face-to-face groups. This feedback was sometimes excruciatingly painful– I often staggered out of a critique wanting to hide from the world, or maybe just get drunk (a strange impulse for a teetotaler). But, in the end, I came to value this kind of feedback. It made me more aware of my failings, and offered me information on how to remedy them. If a writer is not getting external feedback from other writers, I really doubt their writing is as powerful or competent as it could be.

Along with real-life feedback is reading the best of whatever genre you write. You have to know what works for your kind of writing, and, more than that, be able to compare your prose with writing that has proven to be successful. It might not even be a style of writing you want to emulate, but if it’s good writing, it will contain lessons for those who pay attention.

So– lose the ego and acknowledge your failures. More than that, study your failures, pick them apart, comprehend how you might do better, and apply the lesson to your next work. It’s really the only way to grow as a writer.

But it is not easy. Understand that part before you begin.

Next topic– courage.

Later.

Santa Claus is white!?!?! OMG!!!!!

Re: Megyn Kelly– dumb Fox commentator– I could rant on and on about Fox and its twisted, racist agenda, but I’m just gonna let Jon Stewart take care of her– thank God for Jon Stewart–

http://www.thedailyshow.com/full-episodes/thu-december-12-2013-evangeline-lilly

Proving, once again, that humor is the most powerful weapon against tyranny.

‘Nuff said.

Abandoned fragment #7- Northern Lights

As I dig deeper and deeper into my files for lost fragments, the more I find the awkward and the amateur. I have hundred of thousands of words– complete books and short stories– that I am not inflicting on my readers, either here or on Amazon, because they are just not fit for public consumption. Some people have urged writers to pull out their trunk novels and publish them online. I will not go there– not only would these stories be an affront to the English language, they would quite possibly ruin what little reputation I have with readers.

This fragment comes from an abortive historical novel I started, long ago, around the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. It died very quickly because I realized that I did not have nearly a good enough handle on the Chinese perspective to make a decent job of it. This opening is not bad (I think) but it illustrates how awkward I was in that period when I was not writing sci-fi or fantasy.

Copyright 2013 Douglas Daniel.

***************************************
Jason stepped into the barroom, closing the heavy doors behind him against the chill of the October night. Out-of-tune piano music washed over him, along with the stink of cigar smoke, spilled beer, and man-sweat. Only a low murmur of talk carried to him under the music. It was mid-week, and most of the miners in Moose Crossing were two days away from having enough money to afford the Borealis Club. The Club seemed almost untenanted; there were several empty tables dotted like desert islands around the saw-dusted floor. A couple of whores drifted about like sad galleons with tattered rigging, but none of the poker players or the serious drinkers who did occupy the tables paid them any attention. Jason appreciated the quiet.

The bouncer, a beefy little man with a bowler hat and eyes like the dots left by a sharp pencil point, flicked Jason one look, and decided to let him live. “Evening, Mr. Welch,” the man said from the high stool on which he perched. It constantly amazed Jason how the fellow remembered his name; he didn’t come in here that often. Still, Jason reflected, Moose Crossing was a small town, rail-head or no. “How have you been, sir?”

“Fair to middlin’,” Jason answered, not really interested in talking to the man. The bouncer’s name was Rudd, and his chief interest in life was the maintenance of peace and order in the bar while he was on the job. Everything, including casual conversation, served that end. As long as he stood and talked to Rudd, Jason knew he was in some sense merely a target.

“Glad to hear it, sir.” The bouncer’s eyes swung off Jason as the door opened again, and Jason stepped forward, out of the locus of danger.

Jason crossed the floor to the bar. The nearest bartender– there were two, neither looking overworked at the moment– eyed him as if he were a dirty snowball someone had rolled up against the clean wood of his bar. “Beer,” Jason said shortly, feeling about as conversational with the bartender as he had with Rudd. He took his spectacles off, wiped off the slight dew of condensation that had formed on the lenses with his shirtsleeve.

“Pabst?” the bartender asked, just as short.

“Yeah.” Jason reflected that it was a bad sign when Rudd was the most talkative man in the house.

The bartender drew the beer down into a smudged glass, plopped it down in front of Jason. Jason dropped a nickel on the bar and it disappeared with a sweep of the barkeeper’s fat hand. Jason sipped the foam and let his thoughts roam as he stared without seeing at the bar.

One of the whores wandered over—Jessie. Her yellow air was unhappily curled; Jason reckoned that it was naturally as straight as straw when it wasn’t messed with. She leaned against the bar beside him.

“You lonely tonight, Jason?” she asked languidly. She was trying to look sultry. In her case it was like a turnip trying to look like a porterhouse steak.

“Not especially,” Jason said. He sipped.

Jessie pouted. “You say that every time I talk to you. What’s the matter, don’t you like girls?”

“I like girls fine,” Jason said back. Brown skin as smooth as silk. He forced the image out of his head.

“Well, you never show any sign of it. Jesus, in the six months you’ve been working for the mine I haven’t seen you go upstairs once with any of the girls. You must have a powerful head of steam built up.”

If you only knew, he thought. “Might be dangerous for you to be on the receiving end.”

Jessie smiled. For a moment she was almost pretty. “I could take my chances.” She laid a hand on his arm. “Oh, come on. I’m bored. I might even sweet-talk Mrs. McCarthy into giving you a discount.”

“Oh, as if that’s likely,” the bartender interjected, from where he was wiping a glass.

“You dry up, Mr. Davis. You got your cut out of him; I’m just trying to get mine.” She returned her attention to Jason. “What do you say?”

“You’re very persuasive, Jessie.” Jason looked at her over the rims of his spectacles. “But, no. Sorry.”

Jessie huffed. “Are all you Yankees so stubborn?”

Jason clenched his teeth. “Never call somebody from Texas a Yankee, Jessie—you could get hurt.”

“All of you look alike to me,” she said back. She pushed away from the bar. “Suit yourself. Just don’t sprain a wrist relieving yourself later.” She moved away.

“That one’s got a mouth on her that’ll land her in trouble someday, eh?” the barkeeper said.

“Most likely.” There were all kinds of ways of getting in trouble, Jason reflected.

He drank his beer slowly, warming up in the close air of the bar. The piano player finished whatever song he had been hammering at and wandered off for a moment. One of the card games got noisy for a few moments, until a misunderstanding was straightened out about whether deuces were wild. No fists flew– by Borealis Club standards it wasn’t even an argument. Even Rudd spared it only a passing glance.

The doors swung open. It was Mr. Grieg. The manager of the mine workshop and telegraph office exchanged nods with Rudd, came toward the bar. Jason regretted not having finished his beer more quickly with each step the man took, because he was coming straight toward him.

“Welch, good,” Grieg said. He had a slight accent, but spoke better English than a lot of the Norwegians who worked the mine. He leaned against the bar, hunched over beside Jason. “I’ve been looking for you.”

Jason put the glass down, wiped a bit of foam off his lip. “Yes, sir?”

“We got a message down at the telegraph from Winnipeg,” Grieg said. He waved the barkeep away when the man came near, looking expectant; Davis shrugged and ambled off. “It was for the Mounted Police Station.”

Chill winds shot through Jason’s guts. “Yes, sir?” was the only thing he trusted himself to say.

“I’ve sent Randolph down to check the line,” Grieg said. “The message seemed garbled somehow. I may need you to check the electrical connections on our end.”

“All right, Mr. Grieg,” Jason said, “right now?”

Grieg waved him back down as he started to rise. “No rush, no rush. Randolph will be an hour or so checking the line. I actually think it was the operator on the other end that caused the error. I just want to make sure of the message before we pass it on to the Mounties.”

Jason swallowed, trying to maintain a facade of calm. “What was wrong with it?”

Grieg shrugged. “It seemed strange– they were sending a message to the station saying they should detain a man named Walker. Supposedly an American who works for the mine. But I personally know there are no Americans named Walker here. Once we’ve checked the line and equipment I’m going to have the message resent.”

“I see, sir,” Jason said. He was sweating now, a thin trickle down the center of his back.

“So finish your beer,” Grieg said. “Then do a thorough check. Once you’re done– oh, say in two hours– we’ll request the Winnipeg operator to resend. All right?”

“Very well, Mr. Grieg.”

The manager nodded, pushed himself away from the bar. Jason hesitated, then said, “Mr. Grieg?” He couldn’t let it go at just that.

Grieg stopped. “Yes?”

“Thank you,” Jason said.

Grieg paused, then nodded again. He didn’t say another word; he turned and left.

Jason forced himself to finish the beer. The piano player resumed his assault on the keys; some of poker players cashed out and were replaced by new players. After about fifteen minutes the beer was finally a residue of suds in the bottom of the glass. “Good night, Mr. Davis,” Jason said as he stood.

“Not another?” the barkeeper asked.

Jason shook his head. “You heard Mr. Grieg– I got work to do.”

Davis shook his head. “And I think I have a hard job. Good night, Mr. Welch.”

Jason went back out into the night. He pulled his coat close around himself as he struck off down the street toward the telegraph office. The mud in the ruts of the road was frozen, forcing him to watch where he was putting his feet. The moon was out, so it wasn’t hard, and there was light from the other establishments he passed– the Hoopla, the Bear’s Den, Mother Yancey’s. Tinny music echoed from most, but the street was almost deserted. The sky was clear, though the air smelled of snow.

Jason made himself walk. He wanted to run. But he had to go right past the Mountie station to get to the telegraph office, and the last thing he wanted to do was attract the attention of the trooper on duty. Grieg had given him a frame of time in which to act. The first thing to do was play the role of the dutiful employee going about a dull task.

He reached the telegraph office. The place was dark– there was no sign of Grieg or Randolph, the lineman. Jason regretted the fact that he would never see the manager again. He was a decent man to work for.

He went upstairs to his room. He grabbed a blanket and worked quickly to make a bedroll. Spare spectacles in their case, a Bible, shaving gear, clothes, a box of ammunition, socks– he’d have to leave his second-best boots, no room. He rolled it all together and tied the ends. He grabbed a canteen, stuffed a box of crackers into a bag with an apple he had on the nightstand. From inside the mattress he pulled his money– almost fifty pounds sterling in those big British notes with Victoria on them, twenty dollars in American silver eagles, and a tiny bag of gold dust he won the one time he’d been tempted into a poker game. Jason smiled at that memory. That was his father’s fault, the same man who had taught him how to make up a bedroll. The best Baptist preacher in Bejar County, Texas, as well as a first-class card sharp.

The money went into a wallet, which Jason hung by a chain around his neck, next to his skin. Back on with the coat; he’d need it tonight. He slipped the bedroll over his shoulder, settled it into place. He didn’t strap on the gun-belt, nor the shoulder-holster– that would be too conspicuous, too likely to raise a shout if he were seen. Instead he made sure both pistols were loaded and that there were bullets in all the loops. He didn’t want to have to shoot his way out of town, most especially and critically he didn’t want to shoot any Mounties, but the possibility existed. He slung the gun-belt and harness with the pistols over his shoulder, picked up the bag.

He stopped, wondering if he had forgotten anything he needed. Looking around the room he had a moment of regret. He had begun to think he was going to be able to settle here, to stop running. He should have known better.

He left. There was still no sign of anyone downstairs. Jason cut quickly out the back and into the trees behind the office. There was a path that led down into and out of the ravine that separated the main street from the rail yard. Jason took it, picking his way carefully– a broken leg right now would be a major inconvenience. He reached the bottom of the gully, which was almost as pitch-black as the middle of a coal-heap, and started up the other side.

He paused under the lip of the ravine on the far side, peered over. The rail yard was a flat expanse of about five or so acres, five tracks feeding from the loading area at the north end, where the coal was brought down and dumped from the mine trolley. There were, as usual, several large fires burning around the area, to give light and some warmth to the workers. The mine kept the loading going day and night– this seam was huge, he heard, equal to anything in Kentucky or the Pennsylvania hills, and the owners were determined to extract everything they could, as quickly as they could. Once it was played out, Jason reckoned, the mine would be abandoned, and quite probably Moose Crossing would be given back to the forest, but meanwhile it was two shifts around the clock.

As he watched a trolley rumbled in, shuddered to a stop with groaning brakes, and began to dump its load. By the loading platform was a train with coal cars waiting to receive the ore. Workers on the platform, so be-smudged with coal dust they were hardly more than shadows in the flickering light, shoveled the ore into the cars.

It was the other train in the yard that interested Jason, however. It was a freight, its boxcars unloaded, ready to deadhead back to Vancouver. It stood halfway across the yard, the engine at its head puffing steam as it took on water. That was his ride out of Moose Crossing. The problem lay in getting to it.

There was no one between him and the train in a direct line, but there were workers scattered around the yard, either going about on errands or pausing to warm themselves at one or another of the bonfires. If he dashed for the train he would surely draw attention to himself. Amble out, and avoid the fires. That was it.

Jason, wrapping himself with casual like a cloak, climbed up out of the ravine and strode into the yard. Cinders and bit of coal crunched beneath his boots; the place smelled of wood smoke, coal smoke, and steam. He forced himself to go slowly, to take his time as if he were a worker tired from eight hours in the cold and still facing another four. He moved in a careful arc that stayed well out of the circle of light cast by one of the bonfires. A few men stood around it, but none of them seemed to notice him. He stepped carefully; it would be very bad to trip over a rail right now.

He was within a few yards of the train when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Two men were walking down along the train, looking in the cars, talking. Jason recognized one as a yard worker, an Englishman; the other one was Franklin, a Mountie corporal. The two of them were maybe fifty yards away. Jason held the urge to run away at arm’s length. There were some crates stacked close by, covered by a tarpaulin. He angled his walk into their lee, for lack of anything better.

On that side Jason saw that there were actually two stacks of crates under the canvas, with a narrow gap between. He quickly wedged himself into it, shoving back as far as he could to squat on his heels. He was sure he could not be seen by any casual observer– to find him someone would have to come right up to the gap and shine a light into the space. He waited.

The voices of the two men gradually drifted to his ear as they came closer. “…you say this Yank has been working here for five months?” It was the yard worker, a man Jason did not know.

“Six,” said Franklin. “At least, if it’s the man we’re thinking it is. Worked in the telegraph office and the machine shop. Wanted for murder down south.”

Jason closed his mouth on a curse. Grieg’s attempt to withhold the contents of the telegram had failed somewhere.

“I think I’ve seen the fellow you’re talking about. Weedy sort, with spectacles?”

“The very one.”

“Well, who’d have thought? He didn’t look like a killer.”

You’d be surprised.

“You never can tell– had a Indian last year who looked like to be too young to piss by himself, and he went and cut up two men over a game of cards.” Jason smiled at Franklin’s tone of mature knowledge; the man was a year younger than he was. “This Walker fellow killed four men, they say.”

They were directly opposite the crates, now, and Jason tried to still his breathing. The yard worker was saying, “S’truth? Should we be looking for him alone, then?” The man’s Cockney accent was suddenly a good deal stronger.

“You’re not alone– I’m here.”

The two men now emerged into the narrow field of vision afforded by the gap in front of Jason. Their backs to him, they were lifting the lantern and peering into boxcars. Jason watched as they reached the end of the train. A figure, one of the train crew, emerged from the caboose and spoke with them for a moment. A wave of hands and the two came back the way they had come.

Jason held himself absolutely still– except for the hand that slipped one pistol from a holster. Surely he wouldn’t have to use it; neither of them would be able to see him unless they came right up and shined their light into the space. Still, sweat pooled in the small of his back as he crouched.

And then, as if out of some nightmare, he heard Franklin say, “What about those crates?” and saw him turn toward the stack. Jason gripped the pistol tighter, but resisted the urge to lift it and fire now. Surely this wasn’t going to happen. Jason wondered if he could kill Franklin. He teetered between the thought of stark murder and the certainty of hanging if he surrendered.

“We just stacked those this afternoon,” the yard worker said.

“So Walker couldn’t have wedged himself in here?” Franklin replied.

No, he didn’t, I’m not here, Jason thought at the Mountie.

Franklin closed in and brought the lantern up. Jason raised his pistol. In this position the recoil would bid fair to break his wrist. Franklin would have to bend down to shine the light in; that would be the moment to fire. The Mountie was three paces away.

A shrill, piercing whistle sounded from the other side of the yard, three urgent bursts. Franklin jerked upright as if stabbed from behind. Jason recognized the signal– the Mounties’ own call for assistance.

“They must have caught him!” Franklin exclaimed. “Come on.” He was gone.

Jason lowered his pistol, trying to hear the fading footsteps of the two men over his own thudding heart. Then another whistle sounded– the freight’s whistle, two good blasts. Jason heard the train start forward and the slack go out of the string of cars with a crash that went down the train like a string of firecrackers going off.

“Damn it,” Jason snapped. He plunged out of the gap into the night air, and saw that the train was already moving. He dashed for the nearest car. By the time he reached it the train was already rolling at better than walking speed; Jason had to trot alongside the car, praying that he didn’t trip on a tie or turn an ankle on the roadside gravel. Thankfully the car’s doors were open; he tossed in his bedroll, had to leap a switch, then his guns and the extra bag. Now the train was moving as fast as he could run. It was now or never. He leapt up, just as he and his brothers had done many a day when they were younger, jumping on and off the Texas and Mobile freights that lumbered through town. He jumped up and grabbed the door-handle, lifted his feet clear of the ground, and swung himself inside. He was thankful he was on the wiry side; some of his beefier cousins were never able to do that.

Jason quickly gathered his possessions and dragged it all into the forward end of the car. There he found a good-sized pile of straw, more welcome than a set of satin sheets. He piled the sweet-smelling stuff around him as he hunkered down in a corner. The train, going a good clip now, left the yard and passed into the forest beyond.

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I would like to revisit this story in one way or another in the future, especially as it involves a period of history (the turn of the Twentieth Century) and a region (the Far East) that fascinate me. In my original idea these stories would have run right through the Boxer Rebellion and the Russo-Japanese War to World War I. But, as with most of these abandoned stories, their priority is far to the rear of more current projects. And I have only so much time left in this life.

Maybe if I stopped playing Halo….

Later.