Writing Fiction — Steps on an Unmarked Path

Still making notes for the story temporarily called Penitents. Two possible titles have popped up: A Perfect Act of Penitence and None Will be Forgiven. I always try to find the title before I’ve gone very far into the story’s development. So, either of these could be a major influence in where it goes. Until I’m well into the writing, even the smallest, most obscure fact or idea found in a book or elsewhere, can change everything. 

It really shouldn’t surprise me that this happened today. It’s the particular item that served as the trigger that is massively surprising, and the degree to which it will influence how the book develops. Start with the idea of a monastic but secular group that functions somewhat like an NGO service organization. It works out of an abandoned and partially destroyed monastery. The training is inspired by the defunct Church, while it remains purely secular.

So, today… The Passive Voice blog posted part of an article published on a site that probably none of us have ever heard of: The Jesuit Post. The article, if you’re interested, is: Harry Potter and the Prisoner

I’m slowly building the biographies of the characters, so my little journey into The Jesuit Post struck lightning. The head of the penitents’ group turns out to be a former Jesuit who left the church! I’d already started doing research into the Jesuit order in order to adapt some of the practices for my group, so I was primed, it seems. And I could hardly ignore the influence of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which I’ve read three times. Jesuits, Jesuits, everywhere.

Here’s the kicker though. I’m a lifelong atheist. Not one of the majority who have “turned away from God.” There was very little religious influence in my early life, which meant I was left to figure it all out for myself. I did figure it out, and to this day, I honestly don’t understand the mentality that allows one to believe in the existence of a god or gods. It isn’t something I argue about — live and let live, I say, as long as you don’t shove your beliefs in my face. But it does tickle my funny bone that I can comfortably write a novel in which religion plays a part, and an important part for some of the characters.

Kim Stanley Robinson said it

There should be ways to keep this blog from stagnating completely during the periods when there’s not much going on in my head. So I’ll give a couple of things a try. First: I’ve been browsing through the page of Kindle notes and highlights that Amazon kindly gives us, and aside from reminding me about Kindle books that I’ve “marked up,” it’s full of nice quotes. So that’s where today’s snippets from Green Earth: Science in the Capitol Trilogy are tucked away, in case I need them for inspiration some day.

“…the best part of every mind is not that which he knows, but that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing, unpossessed, before him.”

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. But compassion is not just a feeling. To make it true compassion, you have to act.”

That really is a trilogy — three science fiction novels packed into one addictive Kindle book.

Considering how much time I spend web surfing, I could probably keep the blog going with interesting links, quotes, etc., without ever having to write another real post. So that’s another gap filler.

Commentary on books I’ve read or are reading. Nothing so long and intellectually taxing as full reviews — just impressions off the top of my head.

And maybe, snippets of my own writing now and then.

A Day Late and a Dollar Short

I’ve always had a terrible sense of timing, and my writing is no exception. With my energy and motivation declining so drastically, I’m still tinkering with Scrivener and how I use it. Not that I’m delusional and think that will make much difference in whether I actually finish any current projects. It’s sort of shifting the furniture around, hoping the room will look better and be more comfortable and functional.


So I’m adding a work journal to each project that is “live,” meaning that I’m either actively writing new material, adding notes, or asking questions. I’m keeping entries short — just dates, feelings about progress or lack of it, significant changes I’ve made or plan to make, like changing a third person POV to first person. I highlight the really important stuff, and because the entries are short, I can skim over them quickly and maintain an overall view of what I’ve been doing — and how long it’s taking me.

The second “furniture shift” is how I use the free-floating Notes feature. I like to keep the Binder clean and basic, but it almost always winds up being cluttered, and too long. I’m now reducing it to almost nothing but the actual book chapters, and sending stuff like character descriptions, settings, questions to be answered, etc. to Notes.

I need every bit of help I can get if I’m even going to make the attempt to finish anything. Desperation might be my best motivation. So I’m preparing to do Camp NaNo next month, knowing very well there’s a good chance I’ll back out at the last minute. Why bother, then? First, the possibility that I’ll actually do it has pushed me to make a decision about which project to work on. Second, it might (might possibly, with fingers crossed) give me just enough of a time framework and structure to push me over the edge into completing at least one project.

I have several short stories, most not finished or even fully developed, an unfinished novella, and a published story that I want to expand, all with a prison theme. I’ve long wanted to put them together in one book, but kept it on the back burner. I’ve now made the decision about which ones to keep, so that’s a step in the right direction. Lots of steps to go yet, with no idea whether I’ll be able to take them.

A Possible Break on the Writing Front?

It seems that most people have to make a real effort to read books, mostly for lack of time. I have to make a real effort to stop reading. There’s always another book — or several dozen — waiting to be read, and it’s the one thing I can do when I can’t do much of anything else. It isn’t an addiction; I don’t have withdrawal symptoms when the reading bug slows down or stops, and I don’t always have to make a real effort. If I’m well into writing, the reading can wait. Or I can ration it out and fit it in around current occupations.

I’ve come to the slow realization that there are really only two things I care about to any great extent: reading and writing. If I can’t write, I read, and if I can’t read, I’m in trouble. I know I’m in trouble when I spend almost an entire day on the internet, and accomplish nothing at all in the real world. So, this way too-long stretch of not being able to write is taking its toll. On a practical level, I can’t read all day every day, indefinitely. My eyes won’t take it, and my ability to pay attention and absorb what I’m reading flags.

I want to write; I need to write. But, as I’ve whined about more than once, long projects — like novels — look like boulders that I’ll never be strong enough to push uphill. I have neither the strength or the persistence of Sisyphus.

But a lightbulb went off over my head yesterday. What if my worst trait as a writer could be turned into a way to get moving again? My usual pattern is to work on a piece until I get bored, burned out, or distracted. I drop it and go on to another one. I don’t even want to think about the huge number of WIPs lying around in various stages of development. For several years, NaNoWriMo kept me sharp and focused for one month out of the year, but for the last two years, that ploy failed. Camp Expendable was the last book I managed to complete and publish. That was January of last year, and that’s when my health started to take a major plunge.

I don’t have any doubt at all that dealing with bad health, a medical system I had avoided my entire life, and the various side effects of the meds I started taking, were a causative factor. Maybe the only factor. Be that as it may, I still want, and need, to write. I’m down to the wire. I have to make something happen.

For the first time, I see my grasshopper hop, skip, jump method of writing as something that might be transformed into something useful. Instead of fighting it, corral it. Choose three or four, preferably three, WIPs that I care most about, and let them be the grasshopper’s playground. I’d still hop, skip, and jump, but only between those three. I wouldn’t commit myself to any specific number of words or any other goal. Just work however much I can on one WIP, then jump to whichever of the other two seems most attractive at the time. I’ve always looked at this as a way to never complete anything. Now I’m looking at it as possibly the only way to complete anything. Maybe I won’t be able to finish any of them. Maybe I’ll be able to finish all of them — or one, or two. If this works, I’m still a writer. There doesn’t have to be an end goal.


Weekend Randomness

The last year, right up to this month, has been a journey through hell. Along with the major hit to my health and the ongoing consequences, plus other highly stressful external stuff, I haven’t been able to write. Blog posts have been difficult enough. Working on long projects has been impossible. The ideas are there, and the damned things keep coming. But the mere thought of trying to make my way through the thousands of words it takes to create a novel? There’s nothing there. No ambition, no motivation, no nothing. It’s hard to even care. Any concern over the situation is faraway and abstract.

I’ve wandered from one WIP to another, hoping that one of them would be the spark to fire up my mind. No such luck. Until a couple of days ago. One of the external stressors resolved itself more or less happily. It could easily have gone the other way, and nothing I could have done about it but watch helplessly as it played itself out. However, I’ve also been slowly reducing one of my meds which is only one of those I’m taking that can cause depression. So who knows? I’m feeling a tiny bit of ambition again, but whether it’s going to continue and maybe increase is still a question without an answer.


I don’t understand all the hoopla about the movie version of Annihilation. Of course, I didn’t understand the hoopla about the book, either. I read the book. I haven’t seen the movie and won’t. To put it bluntly, I disliked the book intensely. I’d bought the whole trilogy at the thrift store for less than a dollar, and considered I was getting a good deal. Books that I’d take a stab at reading, just out of curiosity, if the price was right, but not otherwise. Result? I recycled them back to the thrift store, the second and third volumes unread.

The worst thing about Annihilation is that it isn’t science fiction, even though that’s how it’s categorized and described. It’s horror, and not even very well done horror. I don’t read horror because I’m not easily horrified, especially by books and movies that are designed to be horrifying. You want horror? Take a look at the real world, particularly those parts of the world that American news sources make sure you don’t run across very often. Our delicate sensibilities must be protected. But imaginary monsters are perfectly okay.

All right, that’s a rant. To continue.

There are dozens — maybe hundreds — of blog reviews of the movie. When I bother to skim a few, it becomes apparent that the writers haven’t read the book. They may remark on the fact that the movie is very different from the book — another of those “based on” attempts to translate words into a financial success. If a book is “unfilmable,” all you have to do is tear it apart, restructure it, invent new characters, plotlines, etc. Apparently, Jeff VanderMeer is perfectly comfortable with having his book chopped into little pieces and then reassembled. Given that the book comes across like exactly that — ideas smashed together in a sufficiently vague way that forbids you getting a grip on it, I’m not surprised. The book has no real substance, so it’s appropriate that the movie, from what I gather, has no real substance either. It can be interpreted any way you want, even allowing some deluded reviewers to rhapsodize over its intellectual content — a movie of ideas!

Almost as Disturbing as Bullets

Depend on me to ask questions that no one else is asking. Maybe there’s something about the handling of evacuations from shooting sites that makes sense in terms of safety or law enforcement. I’d just like to know what it is. Because the videos of students either with their hands in the air, or on their heads, or walking in a conga line with their hands on the shoulders of the person ahead of them, just adds to the horror. Maybe I’m too steeped in the awfulness of our system of criminal justice, but to me, those children appear to being treated as if they are criminals.

Or the prisoners of a military force. The sight echoes photos of lines of prisoners from WWI or WWII. Is this the normal future for the generation now growing up?

Story Ideas — 50 Shades of Transphobia

Whenever there’s something you don’t like, don’t want to deal with, would prefer that it doesn’t exist, one perfect solution is always available: sweep it under the rug. Americans are good at that. Poverty, human trafficking, environmental degradation, political corruption — the list goes on, getting longer all the time.

Transphobia — the denial that gender is more fluid than we have traditionally believed, and would prefer to go on believing — might not be the most world-shaking issue we could be dealing with, but since it’s about humans and their well-being, about their very existence, we should at least give it an honest nod. Instead, South Dakota, along  with several other states, is going to have a go at sweeping it under the rug.

It’s easy — just forbid any mention of transgender issues in school until the kiddies are in the 8th grade.  “…under Jensen’s bill, a transgender student would receive no institutional support. Educating students about the trans student’s identity and why it’s inappropriate to bully them would be prohibited under law. The many books that help explain these issues to young children, like I Am Jazz and My Princess Boy, would be barred from classrooms.”

So, what happens to the children who wrestle with a sexual identity that they know very well doesn’t fit them? How will they manage to grow up into adults who have painfully survived years of bullying and endless attempts by adults to “straighten them out?” Or not survived, as the case may be, considering the high rate of suicide among transgender children and teens.

Looking for story ideas? Be my guest.

Is Resistance Futile?

If you still have the capacity to read something that takes more than two minutes to get through and actually requires that you get your thought processes into gear, I recommend one of Charles Stross’s recent blog posts. It’s actually the transcript of a speech he gave, and provides more than the shallow analyses of social media, tracking, privacy issues, etc., that are calculated to make you gasp with horror for a moment or two before you go on to the next trivial pursuit.

Dude, You Broke the Future!

The question that always comes up (for me, anyway) when reading articles like this, is: is there any escape from the negative effects of current technologies that run the internet?

Suppose, like me, you don’t use any of the social media sites — no Twitter, no Facebook, etc. You don’t have a smart phone, or if you do, you don’t use any but the most basic apps — the ones that enable communication between two people in the form of speech or text — no internet, no movies, no social media, etc. You use an online-only name, have an avatar in place of a photo of your face, and you either ignore or anonymize demands for personal information.

Does WordPress attempt to pin down my likes and dislikes, my needs as a writer or a possible customer? I have no idea. But Amazon surely does. To a certain extent that makes Amazon my achilles heel, but there’s still very little they can do to direct my attention to consumer items they think I’d want to buy. Part of that failure is based on their having no idea exactly why I might look at items. Thus they have no way of anticipating whether I will or won’t look at them again and eventually make a purchase.

That’s the failure of algorithms that can’t deal with motivation, whether it’s about stuff to buy or how to vote. It’s also the failure of algorithms that are set up as nags, in the belief that sooner of later you will succumb to the demands, such as whitelisting sites rather than blocking their ads, because you’re guilted about using them without supporting them.

Escaping the all-seeing eyes is probably impossible unless you live in the woods and don’t use the internet or a cell phone, but you do have discretionary powers if you care to use them. If you choose not to, then you will have no right to complain when you find your ability to function as a free human being rated and limited by algorithms similar to those now being put in place in China. The United States is on the cusp of becoming an autocratic semi-dictatorship. The choice is to acquiesce or resist.



All That Stuff in the Middle

Penitents is going slowly as it should at this point, but is also making great progress. What it’s needed has finally been found — an antagonist — an ex-convict with a guilty conscience. Even a story based on character rather than action needs tension, and without an antagonist of some kind, there is no tension. There’s a real thrill in solving this kind of problem, especially when the addition of a new character wasn’t intended to solve that particular problem. It’s a light bulb moment.

That thrill is actually a problem of its own. I love this developmental period and its discoveries, much more than the writing itself. Writers tend to complain about “all that stuff in the middle” being the hard part. For me, it would be more accurate to say it’s all the stuff between the high points of discoveries.

I’m a fanatic about using the right words, so if there’s any area where I’m more of a perfectionist than is good for me, that’s it. Lately, finding those words means more dependence on my thesaurus than I’m happy with. It isn’t a matter of not knowing the right words; it’s a matter of recall. That’s always been a problem for me. I might not be able to call up the answer on my own, but I’ll recognize it when I see it. Whether it’s advancing old age or the cognitive effects of one or more of the meds I have to take, I wind up plugging the almost-right word into the thesaurus and hoping that I’ll recognize the word I’m looking for.

Now that I think about it, my personal style, if I even have one, seems less creative than the discovery process of constructing the story. That probably has a lot to do with why I have so many stories developed to the point where they’re ready to be written, but instead languish, untouched. Penitents is almost to that point.

Britain’s New Minister of Loneliness — WTF?

No, it isn’t a joke.Britain has appointed someone to help combat the “epidemic” of loneliness, which has come to afflict millions of people. And, according to the endless stream of articles that’s been popping up lately, it’s a scourge in the US also, and in the “rich” nations generally.

While it’s true that many, many people live alone these days, as a result of loose family ties or, heaven protect us, no family ties or friends, there’s a difference between loneliness and being alone. This isn’t a new issue at all, and may be more widespread than in the past, but it seems to have always existed. I first learned about this “problem” 30 or 40 years ago when I read Anthony Storr’s Solitude: a Return to the Self, first published in 1988.

Solitude was seminal in challenging the psychological paradigm that “interpersonal relationships of an intimate kind are the chief, if not the only, source of human happiness.” Indeed, most self-help literature still places relationships at the center of human existence. Lucid and lyrical, Storr’s book argues that solitude ranks alongside relationships in its impact on an individual’s well-being and productivity, as well as on society’s progress and health.

Call me naive, but what amazed me about Storr’s premise was that it was considered some kind of breakthrough in psychology, that it even needed to be said. Of course, I’m an extreme introvert, but that it was (and still is) normal to equate loneliness and solitude was hard to grasp. With a few decades of experiential wisdom at my fingertips, though, I’m much less surprised at the recent rise in concern. If loneliness is considered an epidemic these days, Storr’s book hasn’t changed anything, just as other such books fail to change anything.

Humans are considered herd animals, so their upbringing and education treats them as herd animals. Proper socialization is at the heart of how we bring up our children, so if everything’s going as it should, they have no time to themselves, no way to appreciate the benefits of at least moderate periods of solitude, no opportunity or incentive to look into themselves and discover who they are, as individuals.

Maybe the real problem with social media and smart phones is not selfies, sexting, and addiction, is that they guarantee that no one is ever alone.

Britain now has a minister for loneliness

People in rich countries are dying of loneliness




Penitents Progress Report

This is an expansion of the latest (today) journal entry for Penitents. It’s coming along, even though I still have no idea whether I’ll actually write it. Or anything else.

The notes and questions are accumulating, and I’ve even scribbled some text fragments. I have a much better idea of my central character, some secondary characters, a sense of where this story might go.

The character—Grayson— is still central, but I haven’t had much of a sense of what his world is like—until just now. It’s the same world that Camp Expendable is set in. Maybe even the same as A Well-Educated Boy. Though Well-Ed is probably set somewhat earlier, before the country is in near-total collapse.

So it might be interesting to find ways in which to link the stories, showing that they’re all outcomes of an ongoing process of social, economic, and environmental fragmentation and decay. Part of that would be setting actual dates for the action of each story so that (assuming I write them all–hah hah) they can be read in chronological order. Maybe giving characters from one story small roles in another, though that’s probably too much of a stretch.

Still a major concern is my reluctance to start a large project. If I’m going to write it at all, I want to keep it to novella length, and that’s looking less and less possible. Each new character adds complications and length if they’re to be more than cardboard cutouts.

Here’s a bit that’s more or less the way I want it. Grayson is trying to explain to Lydia why he wants to do a one-week guest retreat with the brotherhood.

“What have you ever done that you need to do penance for? You’re just an ordinary person, like the rest of us. You’re not doing any of the horrible things that messed up the world.”

He opened his mouth to answer and knew that if he didn’t pay attention, he would stumble over his tongue as he usually did when Lydia put him on the spot. It was too much: get the words out properly and make sure they’re words that say what he meant to say. “It isn’t me, Lydia.” He stopped. Not him. That would make it even crazier in her eyes, wouldn’t it? “Okay, it is, a little bit, just because I’m living — eating, eliminating, using up resources…”

“So am I,” she broke in. “So I’m guilty too? Do you want me to share your poverty to make up for… Oh, I don’t know. Whatever.” She waved her hands in angry frustration.

“It’s a brotherhood. They don’t take women.” The second the last word was out of his mouth, he knew it was absolutely the wrong thing to say. He’d jumped off the track–again.

“I don’t care about that! It isn’t the point, Gray.” She sprang up from the couch, banging her shin on the coffee table. “Do whatever you want. I’m not going to argue with you about it. If we’re lucky, you’ll realize it’s just another one of your obsessions and it will burn out by the time you get back. So go! Sleep on the ground naked and eat grass, or whatever it is they do to demonstrate how we should all be living to make up for… for being alive, for heaven’s sake!”

A Concept Without a Plot

I hadn’t planned to post today, but I thought it might be interesting to meander about a story that’s set up active housekeeping in my head, even though it should be way, way down on my list of priorities. Because I have a protagonist, a concept, and a couple of possible themes, but no plot. No, none at all. This isn’t the first time I’ve started working on a possible story without any clue about the plot. It isn’t the best way to work, but that’s never inspired me to change. Either the story will work itself out or it won’t.

“I will devote my life to penance for all humankind.” Or something along that line. Grayson Browning is giving considerable thought to joining a secular monastic order — The Penitents. His girl friend (or fiancée) is outraged. If he wants to help people, there are plenty of ways to do it. Giving up his entire life and becoming a celibate vowed to poverty is just crazy.

The time is probably near the end of the 21st century. The central government is either non-existent or powerless. The country is fractured (by what?), with much of it reverting to a comparatively primitive state. Post-apocalyptic, more or less.

The big question is where I want to put the emphasis — the state of the world? Or Grayson’s place in it, and why he would want to become a penitent? I don’t have much interest in world building, but that isn’t the only reason for not wanting to go into great detail about the time and the place. For one, my own time and energy are running out, and the prospect of jumping into a really big project is just too daunting. Some of those I currently have on hold may never be finished for that reason. They’re too big. Second, and maybe most important, is that I’m much more interested in people than places. I want to know what makes Grayson tick, and that means I’m willing to let the world around him function as a shadowy framework.

I’m also interested in exploring how and why what is essentially a social welfare organization came to model itself on a defunct religion.

How much of a plot do I really need? An interesting question. Maybe the answer lies with Grayson himself.