Thursday, May 30, 2013

Kids are dumb (and getting dumber)

I talked to a public school teacher last night who said they're discouraged from promoting any learning based on memorization. As in, they don't even do math like normal people anymore. No multiplication tables, no carrying of numbers. Nope. Any learning method that requires a kid actually memorize simple facts is being washed out of the public school system, presumably because the kids who don't bother to try to remember anything feel bad. I thought this article did a good job dispelling some of that nonsense.

Look, I'm all for finding new ways to get through to kids who struggle in school, but you know where this is coming from. It's some mopey, dopey mom who can't handle the thought that her dumb jock kid is a dumb jock so instead of taking the football out of his hands and shoving a book under his nose, she calls the English teacher and harasses him/her until Johnny Football gets the score he needs. And it doesn't have to be a jock thing. Any kid can have a parent like this. God forbid we let anyone fail at anything anymore. They might actually *gulp* know what it's like to live every friggin day as an adult. I should be angrier, but you know what? Screw it.

Now I know how a Bank of America exec feels because I can't wait until these people all grow up so I can fleece them for all the money they're worth in whatever sales job I pick up next. They say the gap is growing between the rich and the poor, but everyone blames the rich for it. Well, when you let your kids grow up dumb, which direction do you think they're going to go? Sorry, but I grew up dirt poor and I have no complaints about the economy. You know why? Because if I brought home bad grades, my mom didn't call the teacher. She shoved a book under my nose and said, "Now get to studying, you bum, or do you wanna be a ditch digger when you grow up?" I didn't, and I'm not. And if I was, I wouldn't blame the education system or rich people. I'd blame

Thursday, May 16, 2013

In the meantime, here's MY Game of Thrones Hockey Team (I have no life)

This article, predictably, created a stir in me when you get to the bottom and see a fully realized Game of Thrones hockey lineup. Pretty much my two favorite non-specifically-human things in this world. Naturally I had to have my own take. I'm gonna go ahead and put them in the shape they were after season/book 2 just to be fair and try to fit as many main characters in as possible without ruining anything.

Owner: Tywin Lannister
GM: Petyr Baelish
HC: Daenerys Targaryen
Assistants: Tyrion Lannister, Varys the Spider

I mostly agree with Dave there's take on the management team. Tywin's clearly a greedy owner and Littlefinger is clearly a GM. I liked khaleesi for coach because of her rah-rah ability while Tyrion and Varys would be studious and fair assistant coaches.

Jaime-Barristan the Bold-Robb
Loras-Jon Snow-Brienne
Asha-Mance Rayder-Theon
Bronn-Ramsay Bolton-Ilyn Payne

Biggest offense of the original was omitting Barristan Selmy. That guy should wear the C on your team. Put him between Jaime (sniper) and Robb (skilled grinder) and that's a top line. Loras would be the flashy winger type of course. I figure on the third line get a little wild. Put the King Beyond the Wall between skilled siblings and you'll have a disruptive force. And I fully agree that the fourth line should shed as much blood as possible. I just think Bronn could have better linemates for the job.
Gregor Clegane-Jorah Mormont
Stannis Baratheon-Sandor Clegane
Thoros of Myr-Tormund Giantsbane

At first I thought pairing the Cleganes on defense would be a good idea, but then you'd have those two trying to kill each other and maybe neither is particularly swift. I gave each a reliable partner and tossed a gritty third pairing behind them. 
(Extra skaters: Joffrey and the Kingsguard. They'll be good at sitting behind a wall while everyone else gets shit done.)

Arya Stark
Samwell Tarly

If I'm playing a team of snipers, give me Arya and those quick hands. If it's a team of hard nosed grinders, give me Sam to play the odds.

And I've officially descended to a new low. But hey, give me your takes and we'll wallow in the slums!

Back to where it all started

It took almost exactly a year, but I think I was right where I was when I started the first time. Sigh. Abandon ship. Page one. Don't regret a second of it, and I'll use a lot of what's left behind for another work, but damn. Damn.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Another good article on the craft of writing

Love this article. Totally makes sense and hits it on the nail. I'm looking at this manuscript and, I mean, I have a story. Beginning, middle, end. But it's not enough and I know it's enough. There aren't enough layers to it. I can feel that. This article actually put words to it with this list:

* A set-up with a killer hook
* Character intro with back-story and context
* A sense of place
* Foreshadowing and the establishment of stakes
* The hero’s impending need and inner demons
* The emerging seeds of a subplot
* A major plot point that introduces the story’s antagonistic element
* The definition of the hero’s quest or need
* Scenes that deepen the tension as the hero responds
* Refining the nature of the quest and the elements of its opposition
* A mid-story mind-numbing context shift that changes everything
* The evolution of the hero into a pro-active warrior
* Another significant plot twist that puts all the cards on the table

I might have half of that. Not good enough. It's a crazy month -- moving means not only are your weekends jammed with packing, but your weekdays are filled with frantic partying with friends and family you will miss -- so I'm just sitting back, letting the old girl stew for a while, then picking things back up in mid-June. And then it will get better. When I read something like this, "Because writers experience life in a way others don’t. We’re observers and chroniclers and analysts. We’re players. In the roles we write, we are alive and present. We matter. What we write outlives us." it just confirms a lot of the hunches I've had to begin with. This will be worth it when I get it down.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Time flies in one year

Roughly one year ago I checked into a hotel room for work purposes in Albany, NY and proceeded to crank out a FAT bit of what would become the first finished draft of any novel I've written. I remember the excited feeling that seized me when I realized how easy that step could be. I could just let go, type whatever the hell I wanted, and let the first draft be the first draft. The feeling was (and is) a rush. Just walking into this world that wouldn't exist without me and just smashing, dashing, rearranging, setting the course for all these nifty people, it just felt so right and so essential to who I am. Somehow I knew that if I just kept working on this, if I just kept doing this, that I would become a better person. I didn't know how, and frankly I still don't, but I think I am. I think having a purpose that runs deeper than making someone else money is a basic human need. I realize that need isn't for everyone, and I don't begrudge those who would disagree, but to them I would say they simply haven't dug deep enough or given themselves enough credit for their own creations.

You need a craft to survive in this world. I'm sure of it. You need something that goes beyond money and carnal desire and ambition and everything else that this world tells you that you need. You need something that feels right when you do it. Something that makes you feel special, that makes you feel like no one is doing exactly what you're doing at that second. You don't have to get paid for it (though aspiring to make money seems, to me, prudent at the very least) but you need to have it in your life. Otherwise what's the point? Make like three people in the world happy while you take what pleasure you can from that? It doesn't seem right to me. I lived that life. I toiled without challenging myself and trying to grow myself. I hated it. I wrote like once a month and it was pure cow's piss when I did. Who cares? I wasn't dedicated. I look at my writing now and I'm happier about it, but it's like my golf game. I know that even if I improve a little bit every day for the next ten years, I'll still want to get better in a decade. I'll still find flaws in my game. What a beautiful thing.

I didn't have this perspective a year ago, but it's because of nights like those I spent in hotels like this one that remind me of what is essential to this process. It's not about characters or plot or making things work on a systematic level (though I do believe those things certainly separate certain works from others). None of those things will work if you don't pour your fucking ass into it. Also your heart. Actually if you had to choose between ass and heart, you'd probably go heart. But really all a heart does is pump blood, so that shit's overrated.

Put in the work is what I'm trying to say. Just do it for a year. Pick your favorite hobby or form of artistic expression and dedicate yourself for one year. Yes, it's a long time. Yes, it's going to suck. Yes, working out counts but only if you're in bad shape now. Just pick one thing to throw yourself into after work. Every day. Do it and relish in it. If you don't, find something new and restart the clock. Do it now before you stagnate because the older you get, the more your feet grow roots where you stand. Demand your best and you'll be surprised at what comes next.

I might not be a whole lot closer to my ultimate goal, but life isn't about the destination. It's about the journey. Mine started a little over a year ago and I'm still just starting this out. I'm just now realizing though that it doesn't really matter if I hit that finish line. Whether ten people, twenty people or twenty million people read my stuff, I'm gonna keep it going because I'm me and I write, dammit. I don't think I ever fully understood that sentiment until I did just that. So join in, my friends, and tell me about it when you do. I'll have a beer waiting for you in the clubhouse. Unfortunately the clubhouse is really a tree fort I lease from a ten year old since I'm broke. Hey, no one said chasing your dream was lucrative.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

New Book Recommendation: Wilderness by Lance Weller

As I've mentioned here before, I'm a big historical nut. I love straight non fictional history as well as historical fiction. Lance Weller's debut novel falls in the latter's category and it spans a hundred years to tell the vivid, gut-wrenching story of a Civil War veteran who, at the end of the day, remains a tender, affable guy beneath his hard exterior despite a lifetime of hardship that would have twisted many men into something much worse. I don't want to give much away and I don't like summarizing plots, so feel free to read about it here. I snagged it on a Kindle Daily Deal a month or two ago and it was the best deal of 2013 for me. Seriously, get this book. I don't care what kind of books you like. If you want to be moved, give this a try.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Writing found elsewhere

Just read an interesting article at Grantland, found here:

I love video games and in the same breath I'll tell you they're largely useless. They don't inspire, they don't assist creation, they don't do much more than kill time. But I like killing time and I like being lazy and I really like controlling pixelated hockey players on a TV screen. So video games are good by me in moderation. I don't recommend this article for its video game value though. I think it's a great piece about the craft of writing seen through a different lens. The Bioshock series has always stood out as a cool, eerie shooter in a genre littered with war simulations and alien shooters. Its stories are great, but its atmospheres are even better.

Ken Levine details this process in a number of great quotes, but here's my favorite:

When I was working on Thief with Doug Church, way, way back in the day, we always said that vibe was more important than story. I think that's the same thing as what you're saying. Put the player in an interesting world and make him feel like there's interesting things around the corner. That's way more important than specific details about what's going on.
There are gamers, certainly, who really dig into the details, and God love 'em, because they're the ones you get to sit down and talk with in depth about your game story. But people need a sense of what's going on, and it's our job as writers to make sure they have enough of a sense so it doesn't become a barrier. Just put them in a world with as much visual information as you can, without overwhelming them, and let them bathe in it.

Feels so true. Especially for sci-fi and fantasy. Vibe and atmosphere are so important and I feel like a lot of people who write at my level scoff at such and say they just want to write a story. Well that's great, but if you're going to write in an escapist genre, shouldn't your story let the reader, y'know, escape? 

There are a few other good quotes in there so do yourself a favor and check it out.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

New book recommendation: We Die Alone by David Howarth

If you ever thought, "Sure, Aron Rolston is tough, but I want to read about someone even more hardcore who got lost because he was doing something a whole lot more important than dillying around some cliffs," then I have the perfect book for you. If you'll remember, Aron Rolston is the guy who got trapped under a boulder and had to cut his own arm off just so that he could trek through some desert paths and get to safety. Shit is hardcore, but Rolson has nothing on Jan Baalsrud in We Die Alone by David Howarth. Check out more info here:

Put it this way, Rolston cut off his hand and that shit was undoubtedly gnarly, but Baalsrud cut off nine of his own toes at the top of a mountain while being lashed to a dog sled for six weeks to hide from Nazis scouring the valleys below. Oh, and that's after he fell down a frickin avalanche, which came after he spent days running/swimming away from the Nazis. The truth poignancy comes not just from Baalsrud's suffering, but from the bravery exhibited by countrymen. Anyone who did anything but drag this guy to the nearest Nazi risked the safety of his whole village in helping Jan and yet an astounding number of patriots did just that. Without their help, Jan would have died a lonely man under a pile of snow. Seriously, pick this up if you're itching for some good personal historical fiction.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Book recommendation

I just discovered The Wertzone, which looks like a great place for sci-fi/fantasy fans. Seeing as how I'd just finished Susanna Clarke's massive undertaking Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I thought I'd see what this guy thought. Honestly, a lot of his ideas reflected what I thought of the book. Fun, ambitious, enjoyable, takes a big meandering misstep around the 2/3rd mark but recovers in time for a satisfying ending. I'd recommend it to only the most patient of readers I know. Clarke's style reads like a breezier version of 19th century literature and the depth she weaves into her alternate world is impressive. Apparently it took her ten years to write this book. Damn. There is literally nothing in this world that's taken me ten years to do. Good on her for sticking with it. I'm one year into this project (third re-writes are advancing somewhere between steadily and glacially) and I can't imagine going on for another year without this beast being somewhat finished.

Anyways, here's the link if you're interested. The book's been out a while, but I recommend it if you enjoyed Harry Potter, but wished for a bit more density to it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

History: Still the best inspiration

History is the fuel for fiction. Without it, I'd be lost for plot structure. I imagine many others would as well. I try to always have one non-fiction that I haven't finished on my kindle. You never know when you'll be in the perfect mood to sit back and read some non-fiction. Currently, I'm reading a great book by Ron Chernow simply titled Washington: A Life. It's great not only for a biography of the man, but as a great resource for learning about the Revolutionary War before, during and after through the eyes of one man. When will I use it in one of my stories? Who knows? Maybe tomorrow, maybe never. You don't know what you'll use until you've learned it. 

I say this because I'm really excited about a recent purchase I made. By recent, I mean today. I've always wanted something like this and I really hope it's what I expect:

This one's a Smithsonian joint, so I'm inclined to think the quality will be high. Either way, I've long wanted a comprehensive book of the world's history, but that obviously seemed pretty lofty and pretty difficult. My hope is that through a different medium, I can find different inspiration. This book seems chock full of great pictures and short bits that can really move things along. Most of the time, I just read straight print non-fiction. One of my favorites to this day is The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, which is an incredible, detailed account of the formation and growth of Australia from a penal colony to an independent sovereign. Will I use that in a future story? Abso-friggin-lutely. Already have in some ways, and will more. Let's hope this new book stokes some new fires. That's what it's all about after all. Either you're writing or you're finding new things to write about. Til next time.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Another take on the 'loneliness topic'

I'm thinking more about what I put on my last post and I think part of what I said could use a follow up. Specifically, this part:

You can't take people along for the ride when you're writing or painting or making a song. You can't show them the hours upon hours you spent on a project no one will ever see. You can't show them the myriad of failed projects that, in their own way, pave the way to successes later in life. In fact, if readers do see all your labor, all your pain, and all your doubts on the page, then you probably did something wrong. More and more, it seems to me that art is about pushing yourself beyond any reasonable limit to make something practically useless that might make you money, but will probably just make you crazy. And yet, more and more I realize it could be no other way.

I like that. I stand by it. To me, that's what the process is like right now. But I think I've cast more gloom over the whole thing than really I feel about it. I like being alone. I like those moments when I get home and realize I have two hours to myself to do whatever I want (which means 90 minutes of video games and 30 minutes of writing). If you don't like the idea of being lonely or receiving feedback on your work more than once a year, then I don't think writing stories is for you. Again, that's based on what I'm feeling right now in my rawest of raw states. I've read lots of book on the topic of writing and many, if not all, have in some way called writing a lonely craft. It is. But that's why loners gravitate toward it. It's like football. I hate getting hurt. Are you kidding me? Do not punch me. Ever. I don't enjoy pain. I can't imagine having two men the size of grown lions crashing into me at the same time with only some thin pads to absorb the blow. Yet plenty of guys do it very well and are compensated finely for it. Sure, you know about the pain they feel to get where they are, but we don't feel it. We don't connect with that particular sensation. I suspect on some level an athlete welcomes the pain, at least on the playing field. It's likely an invigorating sensation when it doesn't physically hinder an athlete. They've grown up with bumps and bruises. I didn't. I grew up quasi-alone and have since gravitated toward that. Next time you hear some artist or scholar or writer complain about all the lonely hours, just remember that secretly they (and I) love this shit as much as a wide receiver loves taking a hit to make a touchdown catch.

And the beats carries on with this new story. I'm starting to feel a bit 'in the zone'. We're out of the beginning and plunging in the middle of this story, and things are only getting easier. The plot is only moving faster. Editing shall begin this weekend on one work, but hopefully I'll have something else on the stack before the month of March arrives. Depends on how much alone time I can get.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Just keep going and going

Starting to get the editing itch. I printed out the manuscript a few weeks ago. It's about a hundred pages longer than the first copy. Not a great sign, but I find that my first copy is where I put everything. No idea is too small or insignificant for that first draft. Soon I'll find a day in the office (preferably a Friday) when I can kick back and read through this beast as quickly as possible. Last time I took spare notes on my draft and never once looked at them. I just re-wrote the whole draft from memory (a mighty selective memory might I add). Now I really want to try and keep track of everything. I feel like a good flow chart or outlining device is going to be necessary to really keep this thing in order. We'll see. It's all about learning the process at this point. No one can teach you 'the process' in any art unless you go and do it yourself. I'm trying to do most of this without too much advice out there to bog it all down. There is plenty of great advice that I know I must heed once the story is truly finished, but until then...

In the meantime, I'm still (mostly) putting out 2,000 words/day of new, crappy 1st draft stuff. Sundays are bad days for productivity. While I've managed at least 1k every day between Monday and Saturday, I've managed a total of 1,000 words in the four Sundays in January. Might be time to cut myself some slack. It's easy to hold my own face to the fire and say, "Write it every day no matter what!" but I'm working 6 days a week to push about 60 hours total. Sunday is my only off day, which you'd think would help, but really it only hinders. Suddenly I don't have an excuse to say no to that dinner with Dad or that drink with a friend or a myriad of other things. At first, it felt great to say, "No thanks. I'm writing a novel today." But man, after a year of doing that? Something about this month has just made me want to get out a little more when I get that chance.

This is where I think the loneliness of writing really starts to set in. A year ago, it was all exciting and new and flashy. I had a story that seemed clear as day. Only it wasn't. The only clear thing about this piece was the emotion. Somehow I feel like I'm not alone. When I think of a work, any work that means anything at all to me, it's not the structure or the plot intricacies that really hang me up (not at the daydreaming stage anyways). It's that raw emotion. This first shelved draft comes down to a few feelings that drove me to The End. This thing I'm working on now? Same deal. You pick a few emotions, you slap them on some people you like, and you hit the gas. And you feel the rush as you create and improve upon your creation, but no one feels it with you. No one sees you come back day after day to the same desk, to the same process, to the same document that hardly looks any different to anyone except you. A year ago, I made the grave (yet to be repeated) error of showing a few family members and friends the opening of my work (in first draft form) and since then people (read: my parents) ask about it all the time (read: once or twice over the last year) and all I can say is, "It's not done. Not even close." It's a lonely ride, but it can literally be no other way. If you want to reach The End, you have to run those miles alone.

You can't take people along for the ride when you're writing or painting or making a song. You can't show them the hours upon hours you spent on a project no one will ever see. You can't show them the myriad of failed projects that, in their own way, pave the way to successes later in life. In fact, if readers do see all your labor, all your pain, and all your doubts on the page, then you probably did something wrong. More and more, it seems to me that art is about pushing yourself beyond any reasonable limit to make something practically useless that might make you money, but will probably just make you crazy. And yet, more and more I realize it could be no other way.