Looking Forward, Not Back

I don’t know why there’s such fascination in looking back to the supposed “best” of the previous year. It consumes December, along with the ramp up of in-your-face demands to be cheerful and buy, buy, buy. It’s the month when this semi-hermit retreats even further, trying to avoid the glitter and the omnipresent musak that every store seems to think is necessary. A trip to the Salvation Army and Good Will the other day reminded me that, as long as you’re out in the world — anywhere — Xmas will be thrust on you, like it or not. So I’ve done my thrift store book shopping for the year.

Looking forward will be a long, long exercise in observing the side effects of 2016. It’s bad enough already to give us a glimpse of what the next president will be doing for the next four years — primarily dismantling every humane effort that has managed to survive political, corporate, and military influence, and upping the pain and suffering worldwide.

I haven’t been able to write anything for the last month and I can’t find any spark that would reignite the desire to do so. There are times when I wish I was a normal human being, oblivious to everything that doesn’t concern me personally. But I’m not. I refuse to pretend that wishful thinking will make it so — whatever that “it” may be. I refuse to believe the lies that everything is not only just fine, but getting better all the time.

So where does that leave me? In a limbo in which I pick up one writing project after another, look at it and say, “why bother?” To help pass what little time I have left on this poor earth? Is that enough? I guess I’ll find out.

Black Friday’s Done

Normally, I make a point of not buying anything on Black Friday, but in a moment of madness, I checked my Amazon wishlist for price drops on books that I’m waiting to buy. One had dropped from an untouchable $7.99 to $1.99, so I grabbed it.

I try to avoid buying anything during the holiday madness, and what little I do get, I order online. I desperately need a new pair of sweatpants and haven’t been able to find anything that fits me in the thrift stores, so Amazon will probably get one more sale out of me this year. And maybe another book or two.

I’ve been going to thrift stores more frequently than usual, lately, because my son prowls them on a regula basis, building up a book business on Amazon. If you hear squeals from my direction it’s because the Salvation Army is so overloaded with books that the price has dropped to a dime. I don’t find many that I really want, but it’s nice to be able to pick up a bunch of stuff that might be worth trying out, without investing a lot of money.

Damn Plot Bunnies

As if I need more story ideas, I was apparently dreaming one, because it was solid in my mind the instant I woke up a couple of mornings ago. Usually, my dreams just leave a trace whiff that they’d even existed, so this was a very weird thing to happen. And even bitching about it, I’m glad it happened because maybe it’s a signal that the prison stories that have been accumulating and wanting to be a book are still a thing.

It might just be something that’s peculiar to me and my peculiar mind, but I think immersion in research for a nonfiction book may need some kind of outlet other than the book itself. So the research on the death penalty, as well as other aspects of criminal justice, keeps engendering fictional variations. The original intent for those stories was to have them anchor Bentham’s Dream, which is becoming a novella — a long way from the short story I’d intended it to be. Then I thought it would probably be a waste of time and energy to publish anything like that. Who would read it? It’s bound to be mostly depressing, fodder for a masochist, or for the very few strange souls who take criminal justice seriously enough to want to read about it, even in fiction. But the damned thing keeps creeping back, and now a new story has presented itself to me.

A lot of what comes out in the stories is my own feelings about prison and the death penalty. It’s reality-based–solidly reality-based, but it’s an outsider’s view still. Well, I’m stuck with that, but I’m just realizing that this new story is not just a view from the outside, but a view of someone who has been outside the inmate mentality and then finds himself inside, part of that mentality. That’s a fascinating idea to explore. A kind of doubling of the outsider view — his view of the work, where he was an insider, and of the prisoners, which he would never have anticipated seeing from the inside, all seen through my eyes.

One (at least) of the stories is entirely first person, present tense dialogue. This one will be entirely third person omniscient without any dialogue at all. It will be an unrelieved look into the head of a prison guard who lives by the rules, not just on the job, but also in his everyday life, is persuaded to do something that is very much against the rules, and winds up in prison, as an inmate.

Maybe someday I’ll figure out why I’m compelled to write fiction that almost no one is interested in reading.

Pantsing Experiment

I’m not sure whether the election results have had anything to do with the last week of not being able to write. But when I find myself thinking about getting back to work and saying “What’s the point?” something is going on. Despite having supposedly finished Camp Expendable and on the verge of converting it to an ebook, I started going through it again because I’m just not happy with it. But that came to a screeching halt in the middle of the second chapter. I’ve had periods like this before, so I’m hoping it’s very temporary.

But, as usual, being in the midst of a serious down period, the ideas don’t stop coming. One has been nagging at me for a few weeks, and seems so much more important now, with the US taking a turn toward something ugly, and the rest of the world crumbling around the edges. The current title is A Small Bright World of Sorrows. The premise is that an observer has been sending alarming reports home about a world and its inhabitants, and now two “adjudicators” have arrived, tasked with determining what’s going on, whether this world is dangerous to the rest of the inhabited universe, and if it is, what to do about it.

For some unknown reason, I sat down with a notebook this morning and started writing. Pure pantsing without the distraction of the internet. I gave up paper and pen a long time ago, but two pages came so easily that I’m seriously considering just keeping on with the story this way, whenever the notion strikes. Looked at objectively, writing a novel in longhand is a potential nightmare, so I don’t know whether I will just go on that way, or transfer the material to Scrivener every few days–or when there’s enough to be worth taking the time. Right now, I like the idea of just letting it pour out of my head however it wants to, and knowing that it will be much harder to read if I try to do any editing. So this will be a truly “rough” draft.

Random Ruminations

This is really no time to be blogging  (any day immediately preceding the election, or immediately afterwards), but it’s Sunday, so I’m entitled to take time off from having done not much of anything the last few days. Which seems to imply that I will  be working hard today, but I won’t, even though a loaf of bread is in the machine and will be ready by lunchtime. So far, that’s my only accomplishment for the day. Five minutes worth.

Camp Expendable is still waiting for me to grit my teeth and subject it to Scrivener’s Compile. A reminder for all two or three of you that there are some excerpts here on the blog is waiting for a more auspicious time. How dare politics get in the way of my feeble attempts at self-promotion? Looking at those bits today, I noticed that they aren’t quite what they finally wound up being, but close enough.

The whole world seems to be consumed by the ongoing cat and dog fight, so there’s very little of interest to read on my score of news sites, and even on Scribophile, the critique site that I joined recently. It’s as if everyone is holding their breath. Me, I’m just sitting back, knowing that the only difference either candidate will make is the speed at which the US continues sliding downhill, and the number of people who will be hurt in the process. Either way, those two factors aren’t going to politely fade away. Though I am beginning to think that any future-dystopias I write about should include the possibility of nuclear war.

There’s one good thing about periods when I’m not writing. It gives me lots of time to think about the writing. And that isn’t a joke or a rationale of some kind. The concept behind A Well-Educated Boy is expanding far beyond the basic plot I originally intended, and a good deal of that has come out of just sitting and brooding about Hart, the protagonist, and the learning and maturing process he’s forced to go through.

I was recently drafted as proofreader for my son’s weekly newspaper, a job that has to be the most terminally boring task possible. He usually drops it in my inbox Friday evening or Saturday morning, but here it is almost noon Sunday and it just appeared. So, it’s off to do something useful, even if it isn’t for me. Here’s hoping it’s a 12-page edition this week, rather than 16 pages, and that the football season is well and truly over for the local high schools.

 

One Thing Leads to Another — Sometimes a Sequel

When I wrote Hidden Boundaries, it was intended to be a complete novel–no cliffhangers, no unanswered questions. But it turns out that unless you’re writing a story in which there’s  a specific goal, and that goal is achieved, then there’s always more that can be said. Because, just like real life, the story doesn’t always end with The End. So I wound up writing Crossing Boundaries.

Now, several years down the line, I’ve been working on a novel that’s intended to end with The End. The only problem is that The End of A Well-Educated Boy doesn’t want to come into focus. It shifts, recedes out of sight, comes back looking pretty good, and then disappears again. There are two ways to look at this. I simply can’t make up my mind how I want the story to end because I don’t know Hart, my protagonist quite as well as I should by now. So he can’t make up his mind about what he wants to do.

Or… There’s a story beyond this story, and its existence means that the first story has to lead into it. Hart’s decision about what he’s going to do next depends on that story. Hart’s story is originally the story of his town:

Growing up and going to school in a company-owned town isn’t something Hart Simmons thought about much. He didn’t have any reason to. Until his best friend disappeared. Came back. Killed himself. Hart was always a bit of a trouble maker, the kind of kid who shoved back at rules, just because they’re rules. But he didn’t really know what he was shoving against. Zach’s death woke him up. And then his troubles started.

Burgundy is a nice town. Almost idyllic. Clean. No crime. Good jobs. But Hart doesn’t live in Burgundy anymore, and he probably can’t ever go back. Because he knows where Zach disappeared to and why he killed himself.

Dystopias can hide in plain sight. Right under your nose.

Where is Hart when the story ends, and what is he going to do now? The feeling that the story is about more than Hart’s life in Burgundy has been getting stronger lately, but that didn’t break through until just yesterday, when a new story idea popped into my head. It didn’t actually pop; it evolved out of an old idea that I was looking over and nudging here and there to see if it was ready for a little more development. And it turned out to be the answer to the big questions Hart has about Burgundy, and what direction his life might take. A sequel, durn it.

What it looks like so far:

Privatization had taken over many cities. particularly in one state. A group of owner corporations agrees to cooperate in a “utopian” plan, which includes testing for desirable qualities. The “failures,” those who don’t measure up, are trained to do unskilled and semi-skilled work. The “elite” are educated to enhance their abilities and are treated almost as a separate species of human.

Starts as a humanitarian project to ensure the survival of desirable traits and to benefit the human race in a time of extreme instability, but becomes a more far-reaching enterprise as corporations and later, governments, realize the advantages of controlling a population trained to obedience and a work ethic.

This concept is still sketchy, but it both answers questions that are hanging right now, and adds a complication. How do I end the first novel without leaving readers hanging? It needs to point to where it might go, but not with a frustrating cliffhanger.

I Lied — Again. NaNo is On

Not really. I just changed my mind. Again. There’s a possibility that this is becoming a yearly habit: yes, NaNo; no, NaNo; yes, NaNo. So today is November 1st and I’m doing NaNo. A Well-Educated Boy is next after Camp Expendable is out of the way, so why not just get started? What’s different this year is that I’m not going for a win. I really don’t think I have it in me to push that hard, so if I come out with 20 or 30,000 words that will be a good month’s work.

It’s almost noon and I’ve written 297 words, rather than the 1,000 or so I might normally have racked up by now. I did my normal morning routine: surfing all my news site, then went grocery shopping, came back, made a cup of tea, and only then fired up Scrivener.

I had decided not to bother, but an external motivator shifted the balance. I want to sign up for the Premium level of Scribophile (which I’ll elaborate on in another post), but it’s a huge chunk of money out of my tiny budget–$65.00 a year. Participating in NaNo will get me a 20% discount. A petty amount to most people, I’m sure, but valuable to me. The discount is 30% for actually winning, but that’s unlikely.

Was I thinking about the novel when I went to bed last night? Nope, I was thinking about Bentham’s Dream and about the revision of the opening that I’ve been working on for the last few days. Also making notes for a couple of other novels I hope to get to in 2017. That all makes it sound as if I’m as scattered as usual, but there is a focus there, believe it or not. Camp Expendable is complete and will be subjected to Scrivener’s Compile sometime this week. So that should be out of the way soon. Well-Educated Boy will then be top priority along with Set Me Free, so I haven’t really wandered off onto a side path.

Next big task for the day: decide whether to have pizza or a turkey burger for lunch.

Cleaning Out Post Drafts

So I’m putting off real work again, but discovering that I have 60 drafts hanging around on WP is as good an excuse as any. I’m down to the last three chapters of what was supposed to be the final edit of Camp Expendable. But so many notes have accumulated that I need to evaluate and decide whether they’d be worth the trouble of adding in. That would mean another round or two of edits. Can I face that? As long as the book isn’t what I hoped it would be, I’ll have to. Maybe somewhere in those notes is the detail that will be the magic key.

Procrastination!  While I’m in the process of weeding out some of those old drafts, I might as well pass on a few of the thoughts they began with.

  1. Golden halos don’t really brush off. When you’re writing that all-important blurb, comparing your book to x, x, and x is the surest way to signal that you have no voice of your own.
  2. How much can your hero suffer? People stop reading books for all kinds of reasons. Bad writing, cardboard characters, dumb plot. But I’ve learned that they may also stop reading because you’ve given them a protagonist they like and sympathize with — and then hurt so badly that they just can’t deal with it. Do you need to find a balance, or should you just put your hero through whatever suffering fate seems to be decreeing, or the story needs?
  3. I am, by temperament, a bridge burner. Sometimes that’s a very good thing, and other times, it doesn’t work out so well. What’s most important is the willingness to accept the consequences.
  4. To what extent does the trackable data about our lives enable interested parties to determine who we are and what we want, and use that to their advantage? And how can we manipulate the image that is supposedly who we are, to our own advantage? How can we, as writers, explore the implications of data collection and interpretation in our fiction? The important question: Should we manipulate our data, if it’s to our advantage?
  5. I don’t write books that will ever be best sellers. I don’t aim to earn a living as a writer. I’m not, in any sense of the word, a professional writer. I write for the love of it — translating ideas into stories, bringing characters to life. But I don’t write just for the love of it. I want readers. I want to see some concrete benefit from spending hours and brain cells creating the books. Above all, I want to be a better writer than I am today, and even better on down the line.

Decision Made — No NaNoWriMo

I woke up this morning and knew what my decision was, after having debated the issue before going to sleep last night. Not only won’t I be doing NaNoWriMo this year, last year will probably have been my last one. No matter how well I plan ahead, taking days off from writing, not pushing myself beyond my physical limits, NaNo is stressful, enough so that I always end the month burned out and unable to write again until I get my energy back. With one nearly-finished novel long overdue for completion and the most important book of my life barely started, I can’t afford the loss. My physical capacity is less each year and this year, I’ve really felt it. So that’s it for NaNo, probably forever.

It was a good run that taught me a lot, but other than cranking out one more novel, I’ve probably squeezed out all the juice that NaNo had to offer. I’ll miss it, but not the stress and anxiety.

 

Currently Reading, and Other Stuff

Keeping an eye out for Amazon book sales can really pay off. I had Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Days of Rain on my wish list, but put it off, as I so often do, because of the price. Then, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a sale on his climate change trilogy, Green Earth, of which Forty Days of Rain is the first. So I’ve been deeply immersed. I was unable to read his Mars series because he isn’t just a “hard” SF writer, he glories in details that go on and on forever, at the expense of story and characters. Green Earth is an edit and slight condensation of the original three novels, and while the book is still very science-heavy, it’s a totally immersive experience.

It’s about climate change, but what the characters call “abrupt climate change,” which is an actual possibility acknowledged by scientists today  but played down, probably because the prospect is so terrifying. In the book, “ice age” winter suddenly appear, even as the earth as a whole is heating up. That’s a possibility that resonates with me, more for emotional reasons than anything else. Here I sit in southern Michigan, having just experienced a cooler than normal summer while the world average temps have reached a new high. And Fall has come on quite abruptly, with unusually cool nights. I woke up this morning to 39 F. So the nervous ape inside me has to wonder, even though I know perfectly well that weather and climate aren’t the same thing.

There is too much in the book, including political maneuvering, that could be taken from today’s news, even though the trilogy began in 2004, and the last book came out in 2007. If you’re looking for a nice long read of about 1,000 pages, and don’t mind having your sense of “everything’s fine” shaken up, it’s a must-read.

NaNoWriMo

The development of Empire of Masks is coming along swimmingly, with many surprises that appear out of nowhere. At the same time, Bright World of Sorrows is refusing to bow out gracefully, so that’s also in development. All of which means that the public debut of Camp Expendable has been put off, yet again.

Scribophile

One last chance at finding a site where I can post work and have it critiqued. After my experiences with Authonomy and Write On, you’d think I’d be gun-shy by now. And I am. Scribophile is one of NaNo’s sponsors, and failed to provoke my interest in previous years. For some reason, I decided to check it out this year. And joined. It’s very different from other posting/critiquing sites because you have to earn the right to post your work, by earning karma points via critiquing. Instantly, that raises the overall level of competence in what is posted. There’s very little of the YA and TV-inspired attempts at writing. The site also has excellent forums, and topic-specific groups. I don’t have much time or patience for critiquing, so my accumulation of karma points will be slow. But the level of the discussions about writing is such that membership is worth it for that alone. Judging by the number of “reputation” points some members have, they’ve been on the site for years, which speaks well of how it’s run. Altogether, it’s an enjoyable place to spend some time with other writers, which is more than I can say for those I’ve tried in the past.