Somebody throw something at me….

It turns out that, days and days ago, I was nominated for the Versatile Blogger Award. Then it took me days to figure out how the whole thing works. The mystery was only cleared up when the original nominator spelled it out for me, whereupon it turned out that it is extremely easy (I have a talent for turning easy into difficult). So, in gratitude and in the interests of paying it forward, here are my acknowledgements, fifteen blogs I follow and little tidbits about myself.

Thank you to Julie Christine Johnson, who nominated me–

Chalk the Sun

Fifteen excellent blogs I follow, which make me laugh or think–

Blame It On Princess Leia
Jodie Llewellyn
Pastor Green Bean blog
Nerd Redefined
Nina Kaytel
Strip-mining Mobius
The Fog of Ward
Whim Notes
Writer’s Block
The Parasite Guy

All of you guys, consider yourselves nominated for the VBA in turn (boy, that was economical, wasn’t it?).

Seven things about me you don’t know, and, now that you do, I would appreciate you keeping under your collective hats–

1. I love hummingbirds.
2. I was skinny once. I think Jimmy Carter was president.
3. I hold two degrees in Anthropology, which are generally useless for making a living, but which do sound impressive.
4. I don’t like horror films.
5. One of my all-time favorite movies is Aliens.
6. One night in 1988 I was nearly killed by a woman in a Mercedes who didn’t see the light on my bike because I didn’t have one.
7. Almost anything by Dr. Seuss freaks me out. Seriously, the guy was weird.

Thanks again to Julie. Since I started blogging, I’ve come to appreciate that WordPress hosts a pretty impressive community. It’s been a great pleasure getting to know it.

My struggle with an era

I am now about 72,000 words into Princess of Fire. I’m starting to link up sections, working toward a unified narrative. It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that there is a core section yet to be written that probably contains most of the really difficult material. That’s the disadvantage of the “bypass and infiltrate” model of writing– you’re still going to have to come back and deal with the enemy strong-points you’ve bypassed. In other words, writing the easy stuff now doesn’t make the hard stuff go away.

Meanwhile, when I’m not putting out resumes and phoning temp agencies, I spend my time reading. One of the books I am (re)reading is Isaac’s Storm, a non-fiction recounting of the Galveston hurricane of 1900–

The book captures the tragedy and horror of the hurricane, which killed thousands of people, in part because turn-of-the-century weather forecasters failed, through hubris and bureaucratic stupidity, to recognize the signs a monster storm. The book also conveys something of the era, which makes it doubly valuable to me.

I have long been fascinated by the period of about 1895 to 1914. It’s a time that overlaps the late Victorian and the Gilded Age with the Edwardian, and in some ways you could think of it as the last twenty years of classical Western civilization– the Great War shattered all the previous assumptions, and then the Second World War obliterated the remains. The world we live in would be mostly unrecognizable to someone from 1900.

I’ve long wanted to write something about this period, but I’ve never been able to. I’ve bounced around the Boxer Rebellion, flirted with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, contemplated the suppression of the Philippine Insurrection, and surveyed the Klondike and Nome gold rushes, but nothing has gelled. There’s just too much good stuff– I haven’t been able to settle on one or two threads with which to weave a story.

It’s frustrating, but I think eventually something will crystallize. One thing– I probably need to start thinking about characters, rather than the grand, epic vistas of history. Maybe once I do that, things will come into focus.

Meanwhile, I pound away on Princess of Fire. At least that’s keeping me off the streets.


Flash fiction– the bridge

Photo: Copyright Al Forbes
Photo: Copyright Al Forbes

He had met her here.

That day was blistering hot. The practice hall stifled them all. It made the taunting all the worse. The other initiates were merciless.

When practice ended he rode out into the countryside, blindly, just to get away. The trees by the stream promised cool shade. He rode down and dismounted below the bridge.

He let his horse drink from the stream, with trailing reins, before he noticed the girl. She sat on the bank, watching the water tumble over the rocks. Her hair was long and dark down her back.

She stood, startled, as he approached. Her face, open and lovely, shone in the sun. Her fright faded; perhaps she saw how young he was, and the uncertain look on his own face.

“I’m s-sorry to bother you,” he said, stammering. “My horse…my horse needed water.”

She smiled. It was a revelation. He felt as if he could live in that smile forever.

“People need shade and water, too,” she said. “Come and sit.”

The water still tumbled over the rocks. All else had changed. The scar marking his face ached. He turned his horse and rode away.

The blues monster, Part II, or dang you, J.D. Salinger

In my last post I mentioned that real-life has been pulling me away from Princess of Fire. Well, real-life has now doubled down on me– under considerable pressure from the spousal unit, I have started working on our taxes, in the hopes of getting our tax refund back in a timely fashion. I understand the logic, since we need every dollar right now, but I really despise doing my taxes every year. Really, really despise it.

On top of that, I woke this morning in a funk, the first real one I’ve had since publishing Princess of Shadows, mostly around my continued unemployment. I spent a good portion of my morning walk thinking up new acronyms for myself (I’m either a Person of Worklessness- POW– or an ILL– Individual Lacking Labor).

Between the funk and the taxes the most productive thing I did today was take a nap. Progress on Fire is slowing. I anticipated it would. Hopefully this is just a temporary lull.

Unless, of course, I give up writing entirely. I watched part of the documentary on J. D. Salinger last night on PBS, and I discovered that there is nothing better than J. D. Salinger to give a person an instant literary inferiority complex.

I didn’t get to see the whole documentary, as it ran way past my bed time, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. I look at Salinger and I know I’ll never be in that class of writer. I try to console myself that I am writing genre, but I will never be Heinlein or Martin, either. Grrr.

But, of course, I won’t give up writing. I’d have to shut off my brain to do that. I will just have to keep plodding on, doing my best. Maybe someday I’ll actually be good.

But that’s after I get the taxes done.


A small detour….

I am north of 64,000 words on Princess of Fire. In the last week I’ve missed a couple of days of writing due to real-life demands, and so I’m a little off my previous pace. I’m not particularly worried about it, but over the next day or so I will probably lag even further behind. I’ve decided I need to take time to re-edit a novelette I had previously published on Kindle. Some weeks ago I got a review of the story in which the reviewer had major problems with the editing. I don’t recommend this as a course of action to be taken every time you get a little negative feedback, but in this instance I decided to un-publish the story until I had the opportunity to revisit the editing. I think I’m now at that point.

I don’t believe there was anything majorly wrong with the piece as it was, but I want to be open to improving my writing at every opportunity. It could turn out that the reviewer just has a burr under their saddle…or there could be some undetected (by me, anyway) problem that cries out for correction. Me being me, you have to leave the door open to the possibility that I screwed up somewhere, perhaps spectacularly. From what I’ve seen so far, however, it’s more likely that the reviewer was reacting to lingering passive language and over-long sentences (unfortunately, they were not terribly specific in their review). My hopeful thought in all this is that, perhaps, my ability to see these problems is an indication that I have improved, at least a little, as an editor.

I will not, however, be attempting to create a perfect edit with this story. I am firmly convinced that such a thing does not exist. At some point, a writer has to let go of the work and just get it out there. To do otherwise achieves only paralysis.

Once I am through with the edit, it will be back to Princess of Fire with guns blazing. And a few other things, as well….

Ten life-lessons from “Jonny Quest”

Hal Sutherland, one of the folks involved in the animated Star Trek series from the early Seventies, recently passed away. His passing got me thinking about the animation I watched as a kid, and I got pretty nostalgic about some of the old shows– Space Ghost, Spiderman, The Jetsons, etc. Looking back on them as a group, I realize many were just ways to anesthetize little kids so they would sit still long enough to notice the commercials, but some shows have found permanent niches in popular culture. A few, though, have special meaning, especially for all those kids who grew up be the geeks who sparked the IT revolution.

For me, one of those special shows was Jonny Quest.

The show (in it’s original incarnation) only ran for two seasons, 1964-1965, but I still remember it as absolutely riveting me to the carpet while it was on. Doubtless its sort of science-fiction, secret-agent adventure had a profound influence on the sort of fiction I write today. And although, when I watch it now, I can see all the stereotyped and even racist elements it casually threw around– pretty much in keeping with American television in general in the Sixties– it still has a special place in my heart.

So much so that I thought I would share a few life-lessons I have derived from it. If you loved the show, you might recognize a few of them.

1. The only way to handle a bully is head-on.
2. Enemy agents are always trying get our goodies.
3. A properly trained eleven-year-old can beat up an enemy frog-man any day.
4. Guys who wear monocles, speak with German accents, and live in South American countries are just up to no good.
5. When pursuing an invisible energy monster, always make sure your rocket pack is in working order.
6. Just because the kid in the turban doesn’t own a pair of pants doesn’t mean he can’t be your best friend.
7. A husky and sardonic bodyguard can come in real handy.
8. Mummies resent being robbed.
9. Listen to the Chinese cook you found hiding in the freezer unit of the derelict ship– he was there for a reason.
10. Science is cool.

If you remember the show with fondness, you’re certainly welcome to share any lessons it taught you. I’d love to hear them.

There is a movie theater in my head

Last night I was writing a segment of Princess of Fire in which Kathy is receiving the spontaneous homage of a thousand people at once (why is she receiving homage? You’ll have to read the book 😛 ). It is a sweeping scene- Kathy enters a plaza, and a thousand men and women prostrate themselves, without a word. In my head a bittersweet soundtrack is playing over the images, because of what’s happened before this.

While writing it, I thought (as I usually do) that it would play well on a movie screen. And then I realized it is a movie– an exclusive engagement at the multiplex in my head.

I love movies. I would someday like to write for the movies, although I understand from folks I know in the business that it is thankless and heartbreaking, and a good way to lose your soul. I would love my stories to be filmed someday.

So perhaps it is not surprising that, when I write, many of my scenes play out as movie scenes. I believe I am not alone in this– a couple of weeks ago I reviewed the 1996 film The Whole Wide World, about Robert E. Howard, who the filmmakers portrayed as going through a visualization process for his stories that looked very familiar (I, too, have garnered my share of quizzical stares). And I have heard many other writers describe their own writing process in similar terms.

This may be one of the reasons Princess of Fire is cooking along at a faster pace than Princess of ShadowsFire , as I imagine it, has an enormous number of “cinematic” moments that cry out for a David Lean or Stanley Kubrick to direct them (well, if I am imagining this stuff, I might as well go for the best). There’s conflict, death, regret, love, train wrecks, armies dying the mud, zeppelin crashes (I know, I do a lot of those, but what the hey), and things that go boom in a really big way (I’ll stop there, I’m on the verge of spoiling my own book). And, fortunately, Princess of Stars feels as if it will be just as cinematic.

But, there is downside to this sort of visualization– disappointment. Usually when I get the scene down and completed, it is not nearly as dramatic or powerful as I what I pictured in my head. I know other writers– and artists, in general– have complained of the same disconnect between concept and execution. One way I have heard this expressed is “what is on the page (or screen) is only sixty percent of what you had in your head”. And that’s sixty percent after editing and correcting.

This is most likely inevitable– people are imperfect, and their execution of imagined objects is imperfect. In one respect, the images in my head will always be their most vivid and powerful there; what I reproduce on the page is often a poor shadow. You wonder if this is where Plato came up with his theory of Forms.

Not only is imperfection inevitable, it is probably not something we can do much about. At a certain point a work, a story or a painting or a film, reaches a state in which continued correction and rethinking almost inevitably makes things worse, not better. Some artists have destroyed their work, trying to access some portion of that last forty percent– George Lucas pretty much did this with his special editions of Star Wars (Han shot first, dammit!), before selling the ruins to Disney (we live in dark times).

Still, sixty percent is better than nothing, and some days I come close (or closer) to what I imagine. I’m certainly not going to give up just because I can’t get it perfect.

Does anyone else have a movie theater of the mind? And how do you deal with the imperfection of the executed work?

E. L. Doctorow’s latest novel and thoughts on writing.

Princess of Fire is now at 60,000 words. My best guess at the moment is that this is perhaps halfway through the story. I went back and looked at my progress reports from last year and did some comparisons. With Princess of Shadows it took me approximately six months to go from 26,000 words to 60,000. To cover that distance with Princess of Fire it’s taken me about six weeks. I continue to be amazed at this level of productivity, but I do see some potential trouble down the road. Because I’m writing the easy, pre-written/pre-imagined stuff, some sections still to be written are going to be harder to get down. More than that, because of the way I am writing this novel, I’ve got numerous disconnected sections that will need to be linked up and reconciled. Still, I’m okay with those kind of problems if they’re the price of completing a first draft in jig time.

On NPR this morning I heard an interview with E. L. Doctorow regarding his latest novel, and in the interview are some of Doctorow’s thoughts on the process of writing. One of these is “write in order to find out what you’re writing.” That may not make sense to everyone, but does to me. I thought the interview was worth sharing– let me know what you think.

I’m thinking I need to add some of Doctorow’s titles– probably Ragtime and The March— to my literary bucket list. Jane and Chuck, move over and make room.