August 5 – Weekend Notes

I must be a very cruel person. I enjoy reading Amazon book reviews at least partly for the ignorance and illiteracy they often reveal about their writers. Do these people even realize that they are exposing themselves and usually coming off much worse than the author they’re trying to badmouth? Or do they care?

I also enjoy dipping into a variety of subjects in WordPress’s Reader, and noting the variety of skills, or lack of them. This morning, I’ve seen loose used in place of lose, an all too common error. It’s being used as a possessive, almost as common as dirt. But here’s one that really caught my eye: “I am very excited to announce the publication of my short story A Day at the Beach on Amazon.” Two commas would have been a nice touch, and eliminated the mental image of spending a day on the beach while on Amazon.

I take it for granted that the freedom to expose yourself on the internet applies to writers and would-be writers as well as the rest of the world. I would like to believe that everyone who aspires to be a writer is open to criticism, but we all know that’s unlikely in the real world.

On a different note, work on A Perfect Slave is coming along — much slower than I foolishly hoped — but I’m almost halfway through. It seems, regardless of my logical approach to prioritization, that the next project will be A Well-Educated Boy, in spite of being not much more than notes. If I could ever figure out why WIPs seem to set their own agendas, my life would be much less frustrating. So Gift of the Ancien gets pushed to the back of the line once again.

I’ve been exploring Bullet Journaling, which is supposed to be a supremely practical approach to the scattered sticky notes and bits of paper that are the bane of the hopelessly disorganized. Of course, that research involved hours of ignoring all the non-computer work waiting for me, but convinced me that it’s worth trying. Using the computer to keep myself organized has just not worked, no matter how many and how many types of organizers I’ve tried. Pen and paper really does work better for me because it’s immediate. Where it doesn’t work is how to keep track of all the bits of scribbles. Bullet Journaling seems to combine the best features of working on the computer with the ability to just pick up the darn notebook any old time rather than interrupt whatever I’m doing to pull the computer out of sleep mode and open a program. I have a graphing notebook on order from Amazon, which does rather piss me off because graphing notebooks are nothing special except that they’re now a big item for Bullet Journaling enthusiasts. The one at the drugstore was cheap, but only available in one size — way too big for convenience — so I’m letting myself get ripped off for a smaller one. Will eventually report on how it goes.

 

Ignoring the Rules, and Other Stuff

Every mistake in the rule book, or how to ignore them all and write a bestseller.

The first time I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, many years ago, I hated it. Who’s speaking? Doesn’t the guy know how to use apostrophes? It wasn’t so much that my inner grammar nazi was offended, it was just a very hard book to read. Unrelievedly dark. Depressing. And then to have to struggle through figuring out who was talking because the characters didn’t have names.

I don’t know what kind of mood I was in when I read it, but I obviously wasn’t ready for a book that required patience and thoughtfulness from me. So this week’s reread was very different. I let the book speak to me, and what it said was that the rule-breaking was deliberate and had a point. If I didn’t get the point, that was my problem. I’m not interested in critics’ interpretations of the book because I know what it said to me. The world is dying due to some unspecified disaster. Everything is gone. The characters have no future, and are just struggling to survive from day to day.

Life has been pared down to the basics, which includes language. What is there to say, between two people in such circumstances, that needs elaboration? McCarthy’s language plods on, just as the characters do, with rare escapes into dreamlike segments that might be memories, might be a mind rising, for a short time, out of hopelessness, or might be hallucinations.

A master of story telling can break all the rules and make them serve him.

The face on the cover: is it becoming a woman’s world?

I can’t help but notice, as I browse through several categories of Amazon’s best seller lists, that females have taken over the covers. Since my first impression of a book and whether I want to read the blurb is the cover, I’m finding fewer and fewer that make me willing to take the next step. As far as I can see, on the basis of dipping in here and there out of curiosity, most of those books are about either kick-ass female heroes, or romances snuck into categories in which you wouldn’t normally find them, purely in order to gain more sales.

I read a fair amount of science fiction, so my eyes skim over most of the covers these days. I’m a long-time SF fan, but of serious, even literary SF. Judging by Amazon’s best seller lists, there’s very little of that being written. The dominant themes are women acting like the most stereotypical men, or acting like the most stereotypical women in new settings which most of the authors are unfamiliar with and write in the least convincing ways.

Trends come and go, styles change, society changes, but not all change is for the best.

 

How Long Does it Take to Write a Novel?

How long does it take me to write a novel, from start to finish? As long as it takes, which might be, and usually is, several years. How many drafts go into a novel? Another unanswerable question because I pick up and drop WIPs, and pick them up again, for all sorts of reasons, or no apparent reason at all. My writing life is in a perpetual state of disorganization, flux, chaos, whatever you want to call it, and it works for me.

Ideas are always running through my head, against a background of unanswered questions about this WIP or that, even the ones that I’m not currently working on. Out of this mess comes the answers — usually. All this came to the foreground this morning as the solution to an ongoing problem with Bentham’s Dream came to me with no warning.

The question: Why would the warden of a secretive prison sit down with the first inspector to invade the premises in the 40 years of the prison’s existence, and reveal all (or nearly all) to him? I fooled around with motives like trust: for some reason, he knew that this inspector would keep everything to himself. The long-pent up doubts about his position and the whole concept of total solitary confinement, and no longer concerned about the possible consequences of his revelations. Well, there were others, also, but none of them satisfactory. This morning’s solution is truly the solution I’ve been looking for. It unites two ideas that my mind had kept totally separate, for some reason.

It’s a mystery why I couldn’t have seen the obvious need to combine them much sooner, but mystery is a good part of creative writing. Maybe I’m just trying to justify my lack of discipline, but it seems to me that you longer allow a piece of fiction to simmer and develop, the more chance there is of finding the best solutions. Not the solutions that let you zip through several thousand words a day or produce several novels a year, but the ones that bring characters to life, that result in a plot that seems inevitable rather than manufactured.

In today’s dominant emphasis on building a career, on treating writing as a business, taking the long path to a finished novel can look suicidal. It can certainly dump you in the waste bin called hobby writer, ignoring that, by those standards, many of the past’s great writers were mere hobbyists.

 

Re-finding Me

I’m in a strange place, mentally, and have been pretty much for the last three months, ever since a stay in the hospital and a diagnosis of heart failure. Well, at 80, what can you expect? But the place I’m in, and it’s a damned boring and uncomfortable place, isn’t part of being 80. It’s being, for the rest of my life, a heart patient, after avoiding doctors altogether for many past decades. That inevitably involves medications. Which means putting up with, working around, or refusing to accept the many side effects. It also involves meeting, on a daily basis, one’s own mortality, without the luxury of thinking about death as something that will certainly happen some day, but far enough in the future that it’s more or less an abstraction at the moment.

Believe it or not, that isn’t the real problem for me. The real problem is that I haven’t been able to write. The drugs that are helping me avoid a heart attack or stroke are sucking out the essence of what it means to be me at my best. And empowering my worst qualities. Which, if you think about it, isn’t too different from the drugs that help people with severe mental illness. It isn’t that unusual for people who are bipolar to go off their meds because the drugs kill their creativity. I won’t try to compare the fear of sinking into a cycle of depression/mania with the fear of your heart giving out on you. When you are attacked and diminished at your core, the pain and fear are the same for everyone.

What I’m working through is more complex than how do I recover my creativity and get back to writing. My concept of who I am as a writer and why I even want to write is changing. As I wrote to a friend earlier today, “I’ve given up on the idea of “making a difference,” so if I continue to write, it’s for myself and for the few who stumble on it by accident. I don’t have the talent to “write for the ages” so I have no illusions or guilt about not making more of an effort.” But the itch to write is there, unrelenting, so I have to figure out how I’m going to move on from this state of paralysis. I have to re-find myself, but accept that the self I settle into isn’t going to be exactly the old one.

Maybe that means I can be more relaxed about my writing. Maybe I can let myself choose what to write based purely on how much I’m intrigued by the story rather than how “important” it will be or whether it makes a difference — says something profound enough to change someone’s life, change the world in some small way. Yes, I’d like to “write for the ages,” but since I don’t have that kind of talent I need to leave my self-judgmental attitude behind. I don’t have enough time or energy left to waste on impossible standards. There’s no sin in writing books that don’t have a message. I just have to keep telling myself that.

March 5 Weekend Odds

Just a reminder (I did mention it before, didn’t I?) that the version of Privileged Lives I’m posting isn’t quite the final one. Very close, but not finished. And an invitation, in case I didn’t mention that, comments, questions, and criticisms are welcome.

I meant to post another section yesterday, but forgot about until late in the evening. Does anyone see a pattern here? Maybe I’ll put up two today. After all, there’s nothing like swamping readers.

Anyway… the final  revision is going well and I’m over halfway through. It’s going to be a much more solid novel than the first published version.

I’m currently engrossed in reading The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo. It’s a long book and is turning out to be possibly critical to another book that I might possibly write some day. As a confirmation of my belief that humans are a basically flawed species that is failing Mother Nature’s grand experiment it’s extremely depressing. I’m about halfway through and looking forward to the hopeful conclusions he says are coming at the end of the book. Frankly though, I believe whatever hope he has is as delusional as the many delusions about ourselves that his Stanford Prison Study reveals.

Between The Lucifer Effect, research into criminal justice, and keeping tabs on the political and other craziness that fills the news every day, a coherent overall view of humanity is trying to assemble itself in my overloaded brain. Thank goodness, I will probably never find the time to write it, because it would undoubtedly look just like the rantings of all the poor souls who’ve tried to give us a true big-picture view and are remembered, if they’re remembered at all, as kooks and cranks.

Editing, Kitty Adoption, News

The revision of Privileged Lives is going well, although stuff got in the way yesterday and I only did about two chapters. Still… Cutting the fat, expanding scenes, combining chapters, all on the way to a final rewrite. It’s down to 29 chapters, from 38, and I’ll probably combine several more before I’m through. It’s kind of amazing how much I’ve learned since writing it back in the Spring of 2011. And it’s hard to believe it’s been hanging around that long. This is one of those cases where you have to decide whether a book that’s never sold more than a few copies is worth overhauling. It might still languish unread, but it’s worth it to me.

The “stuff” that got in the way of book work yesterday, was one of the massive shopping trips I go on almost every week with my son. Usually, it’s two grocery stores and one or two thrift stores. Yesterday’s started with the local Humane Society. I decided a month or two ago that I missed having a fur ball, so I kept checking out the photos on the HS site. The cat I’m adopting is a ten-year-old orange female who might not have found another owner at that age. She wasn’t exactly abused by her previous owners, but they put her in their basement because of their little kids (no details on that except her inability to cope), and lived down there for a year. She’s still skittish, but didn’t have any trouble with my petting her, leaned right in, in fact, so I think she’ll be fine once she settles down. We’ll probably go in tomorrow to sign the adoption papers and take Stella home.

As part of getting my life somewhat normalized, which used to mean being owned by a cat, I’m cutting way back on the news. I’ve accepted that things are mostly going to get worse as the new “president” lays about him with an axe handle. There’s nothing I can do about it except put my little bit of money where I hope it will do some good. I made a second donation to the Standing Rock Sioux this morning, even though I know that particular battle will probably be lost.

RESIST!

Orwell Would Be Proud

Or maybe jealous. It’s all over the internet today, the “President’s” puppet’s new take on truth: alternative facts. I hope someone’s collecting the 21st century additions to Orwell’s Newspeak. We’re probably going to be seeing a lot of that kind of thing.

Did anyone seriously think that the man would suddenly turn presidential? That his people would gently coach and guide him in his role? Did anyone expect that the very first press conference of the new administration would be a series of blatant lies? If you were surprised by any of this, you haven’t been paying attention.

 

Coming up — Four Years of Inspiration for SF Writers

It’s hard to believe that this country’s most significant and dangerous step into the future is only a day and a half away. The writer in me rejoices, not that I’ve been lacking for ideas. But the humanist in me shakes with dread. Will it be a never-ending nightmare in which the future is the blackest of black comedies, or a black comedy that makes every day a nightmare?

Humans, as a species, aren’t good at facing reality, and the next four years may be the ultimate proof of this failing. Global climate is, in a way, the metaphor that illustrates what such blindness will cost. It is proof that when faced with an unacceptable reality, humans are perfectly capable of rejecting what they see with their own eyes and experience with their own bodies, and retreating into a fantasy world in which bad things simply don’t happen. There is factual, real-life evidence, from every part of the world, that processes we can’t stop are already underway, and that they are proceeding at a much faster rate than scientists were willing to admit until very recently.

There is no shortage of rose-colored visions of a future that won’t be as bad as the worriers and Cassandras predict. Wishful optimism fits both climate change and the upcoming administration. The belief that raising buildings a few feet will defeat the incoming waters, or that the man moving into the White House will, sooner or later, start acting more “presidential,” are dangerous delusions. What will happen, sooner or later, is that the wearers of rose-colored glasses will be the first to scream, “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” And they will be looking for someone to blame.

Money on Their Minds

One of the big forums for writers is a never-ending source of revelations about the “art” of making money by writing. If you read this forum regularly, you’d have to come to the conclusion that no one becomes a writer for any reason except to make money — preferably big money. How to write to market, which trends are on the upswing, how much to spend on advertising — it goes on and on, with craft entering the discussions so seldom that it seems like an actual intrusion.

If you can’t churn out a novel every month or two, as this “industry” requires, why not try short stories? If you’ve obviously never read any short stories and have to ask how to go about it, what’s involved in writing them, and even how to find ideas for stories, why that’s just a sensible approach. At least in the anything-for-a-buck mentality. Learning on the job is a natural part of becoming a writer, but somehow, this willingness to jump into something you know nothing about for no better reason than to fill in the gap between your written-to-market novels is particularly specious.

Despair for the Human Race

Close observation of human behavior can lead to severe depression, but it’s also a never-exhausted source of inspiration for stories if you can keep yourself from giving up on everything, including writing. The same psychological patterns repeat themselves on all scales, from the behavior that leads to wars to discussions on the internet. I wish I were smart enough to illustrate this in a novel or short story, but I’m not.

A ubiquitous pattern, maybe the most important one that keeps people at arm’s length from each other and provides a basis for hatred of the other and justification for wars, is the emotional response to topics that desperately need to be met with reason. A comparatively harmless example of this is currently underway on a forum for writers, in a thread that is now 10 pages long and still going, and becoming ever more acrimonious.

What was the innocent firecracker that turned into a bomb? Someone asked why the site didn’t have a women’s fiction category for submissions. This is a critiquing site, and like any such site, it can be difficult to find the just-right category for your work. Without going into the gory details, I’ll just say that it took less than a page of responses to turn into a gender war. As a woman with no interest in women’s fiction, either reading it or writing it, I’d appreciate such a label. I don’t have a lot of time for critiquing, and the label would make it unnecessary to read the introductory blurb for something that’s only listed as fiction or short story, and that I’m not interested in reading or critiquing. If categories for children and young adults are acceptable, why not women — or men, for that matter?

But no. Clutching their rigid variety of feminism to their breasts, some women found that disgusting and degrading, and a way of warning off potential male readers. Not to mention that it would serve to stereotype anything written by women. I was among the few who tried to keep the discussion on track. Women’s fiction is a standard publishing category. It’s a tool to help people narrow down their search for reading material. There’s no requirement that a writer use it, or that a reader pays attention to it. It’s purely descriptive, not prescriptive.

But the one thing you can always count on, no matter the topic, or how seemingly uncontroversial, any topic can be blindsided by emotional responses that require all-out defense rather than reasoned argument. An emotional response comes from a place that is highly personal and must therefore be defended as if it were the person themself being attacked. Once emotion takes over, rational discussion is impossible.

We see this on every level — politics, national pride, and religion at the highest, and at the lowest, arguments about who is entitled, or permitted, to do what. There was a brief moment when PC thinking (political correctness) seemed to be on the wane, but it is now in full swing again, running wild in away that’s barely short of insane. What you eat, what you wear, doing yoga, what music you listen to — all are being dragged into the black hole of emotionally based PC.

My last comment on the thread was something that had occurred to me while reading it. People’s lives are no longer under their own control, a frightening fact of life that can’t be tolerated for very long. Attempting to define and limit what others are allowed to do is one way of regaining control, even if it’s only an illusion. But the illusion must be maintained if it is to be effective, thus the emotional responses that are incapable of responding to reason.

Welcome to 2017. It’s a mad, mad world.

Little Random Rants and Notes

I seem to have a thing about headlines. They provoke strange thoughts even if I don’t read the articles they’re trying to lure me into. Like the one on vox.com that I just stumbled over: At What Age do People Stop Shopping at Ikea. That’s just loaded with implications, and I don’t even need the accompanying photo of a deliriously happy young man standing on a scooter outside an Ikea store and waving at me. Ignoring what it’s trying to tell me, probably about millennials, I’ll say: at the same age you should stop shopping at all similar stores, when you’re ready to stop acquiring stuff and are ready to just live.

In completely unrelated news, I’m very glad I stayed home for Christmas and had a completely normal day. Because, looking back, I’m pretty sure that would have led to an unnecessary overload to push me further into my current state of mind-death. I shuddered at the thought of having to interact with five adults, including a guest/stranger, plus two dogs, sitting around for hours with absolutely nothing to do, and waiting for a dinner I wouldn’t have been allowed to help with. Even on days when I know I’m not going to be able to write, that’s a form of torture I don’t need.

At the moment, I’m dithering about whether to go to the drugstore a block away, just to get a little fresh air, and roam the aisles more or less mindlessly. It’s about 32 degrees outside, which makes the decision more difficult than usual, what with having to put on the layers of clothes I’ll need, gather up keys, etc. It reminds me that beneath this dithering and a lifetime of not doing things that need to be done because the preparation seems more complicated than I can deal with, is a failure of executive functioning. That’s just one of the many little quirks of my neurology that goes along with Aspergers. 99% of the time I don’t think about it, or any of the others, but they’re always there, little roadbumps that keep tripping me up. At times like this, when the whole world seems determined to go to hell, they pile up, and come to consciousness in a very ugly way. Theoretically, writing about stuff like that bleeds off the stress, but it rarely does.

If you’d like to read a provocative analysis of one of my current irritants, here’s http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/12/30/mourning-celebrity-the-public-sphere-of-emotional-surrogacy/

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.