On The Seance of Dead Writers

An interesting conversation occurred this morning between Tess and me. We were talking about the mechanics of voice, specifically Elmore Leonard’s ability to convey entire stories through little more than dialogue. She loves his style or writing, if I heard her correctly, because of the way that it lies.

Now I should explain.

All fiction is a lie. Author literally makes this stuff up, and the trick is we’re sometimes able to make our readers believe that lie as if it were fact. Leonard’s genius is that he lies in a way that makes you feel like you’re witnessing the story as it’s happening. It’s memory. A long conversation that you’ve listened instead of some words you read.

While I appreciate the technique, much of what I’ve written does not make use of this. Per my wife, I should probably think about channeling the voice of Leonard. This is, however, only one possible conclusion of the conversation.

I am now keenly aware of the authorial voices that influence me as I pound out manuscripts. In fact, I’ve noticed that as I’ve developed as a writer, I tend to read with a new found insight into these creative aspects within the domain of any story’s construction.

Right now I’m very much channeling the spirit of Dead Ed with a little Jack London tossed in. For the first time, I’m mindful of the influence these two authors exert on my writing, as I write. I often ask myself if what I’ve written is something they might like to read. Of course, I’ll never know, but the question is an important one for me to answer because the example of their work sets a new expectation that I’m shooting for.

Advertisements

Resentments

I was sitting at the kitchen table sipping coffee and looking inward. Recollections of dry sage were clipping my knees and thighs re-running past my mind’s eye. Grasping for the scents, the images of long-needled Ponderosas passing by, the sound of a stellar’s jay or my dog panting at my heal. I was thinking about these things when she sat down next to me when she saw a vacant look on my face.
This morning my loving wife asked me straight up if I resented her or A-bear. The question took me by surprise and consequently I took my time answering her. I sipped again from my cuppa and put down my phone to think it over.
I’ve been a bit surly of late and so I know it’s understandable that she might be wondering. And her question, though it missed the precise cause, was an insight into the turmoil that’s been boiling in my pot.
I knew in an instant that I did not resent my wife or my child, but when I thought about it, I realized that I resented the loss of the man I was back in 2009. That’s what I told her because that guy was awesome. He ran hundreds of miles in any given week. He crossed mountain ranges with skill and efficiency. And that Matt wore a smile all the time mostly because he was happy, but also because he felt the most self-worth he’d ever known.
She had to leave to the office, and I was getting A-bear ready for school and needed to get us back on track, so our conversation was amended. As the morning passed by I realized that I do feel resentment and it’s not just because I’m not that person any longer. I’ve been mindless of this. As filled the laundry machine and cut my hair I realized that the best thing I might do would be to iterate those annoyances and hates that I harbor.
I resent that the Malheur seven were acquitted today. I resent that this particular toxic brand of Western-American culture feels compelled to transform their unjustified sense of entitlement into a virtue. I resent that they explain away difficult philosophical questions about land management by brandishing their pocket Constitutions; that they silence simple challenges to their “way of living” by flourishing assault rifles. More than anything, I resent the fact that they presume to speak for me, that they usurp my real Western voice by way of criminal stunts designed to divert media attention away from real problems and productive conversations.
I resent the fact that anytime I look away my dog crawls up into my bed. I understand that she merely wants to be close to me, but it means I have to wash sheets multiple times ever week.
I resent how slow my training is going. The seventeen-year-old under all this fat can’t help himself. He wants to run and run and run for the sheer, unalloyed joy of running. But he’s buried under twenty-ish years of age and fat and fatigue. He’s angry each and every time he’s got to take all the rest of that along for a run through the woods.
I resent that I have a lot more work to do before I become a better writer. I see some of you, who daily shit better stories than I’ll ever patiently and carefully engineer, and I’m overwhelmed with jealousy.
I resent that I have to read and re-read anything I’ve written uncountable times and I’ll still fumble misused phonemes and misspell words. I resent that it’s often the same god damn words I miss and I wish I knew how to take off these blinders.
I resent cold tea bags left in the bottom of the kitchen sink.
I resent that we live in a country so responsible for the impending catastrophic, human-induced environmental collapse that will surely scar our days with unprecedented sorrow and no one cares. Even I, after recognizing this plain fact of life, can’t find the energy necessary to pull back on the stick before humanity’s inevitable nose dive. Too, I resent that so much effort and energy gets invested into maintaining the pretense of a “debate” about the cause or possible consequences of our terminal societal path.
I resent each, and every time I’ve been stuck behind a Chevy or Dodge diesel truck with one driver, nothing in the bed and a trail of oily exhaust pouring into my grill.
I resent the fact that Utah and Idaho and Colorado keep electing assholes determined to give away public lands. Too, that resource extraction companies have littered Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and anywhere else there might be a drop of sand oil with fracking wells. I resent it when they try to hide these machines behind hills and trees so that they’re not in plain view of people passing through on roads.
I resent that people from Texas and Oklahoma and California and elsewhere have taken over my homeland and that in doing so they’ve transformed a home into a giant theme park in the mountains.
I resent “-est.” The fastest, biggest, strongest, the most extreme. I resent how our culture has figured out a way to celebrate the extremities of any action or pursuit simply because of its statistical improbability.
I resent the fact that I brood on all these things (and so much more), that I can’t seem to break free from this pointless and stupid cycle of obsessions.

Cliché

Cover Art from Danny Flynn for "Starship Troopers"

Cover Art from Danny Flynn for “Starship Troopers”

I have to tell someone. I am becoming weary of contemporary fiction outlets reviewing the works of dead science fiction authors. Every time I see another article like this, I’m reminded of the old men who frequented my coffee shop. They’d habitually sit around shooting the shit, sipping their cuppa, while comparing anything and everything of today to their bygone era.

It is statements like this that chap my hide.

“When examining military science fiction, all roads, at one point or another, lead to Starship Troopers, written by Robert A. Heinlein in 1959 and rooted in his service in the U.S. Navy.”

Good grief! All roads? Really?

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that there is an abundance of military science fiction available today. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to stroll the SFF section of your local library or bookstore with your hand outstretched on the spines without touching a story that doesn’t at least make use of organized conflict as a primary theme. The idea that Heinlein influenced all of these latter-day authors is just ludicrous.

My problem isn’t with Heinlein or any of the Golden Age writers. Rather, I’m taking umbrage with our community’s insistence that we continue to pay these guys homage. They had their day and, point in fact, made a reasonable living from their words. Yes, their stories are memorable, and they may even influence some of us when we put pen to paper, but their contributions to the genre canon are, at best, dated.

At worst, is the idea that Science Fiction has become a historical study. Are we so frightened of the future that we’re eternally fixated on old stories, endlessly rehashing comfortable clichés?

Maledicta?

I have been criticized for the use of coarse language in my writing and, you know, that’s fucking fair. Regardless of where the scrutiny is coming from it tends to make me wonder, Could I say the same thing, but keep it pure as snow? This is completely rhetorical noodling, however, and I know it. Don’t believe me, walk out your door and gnaw on a handful of the white stuff. You’ll be spitting dirt, hair, and heavy metals for the rest of the day.

I was born in the early 70’s. Some of the worst atrocities of Vietnam War were taking place as my mother labored over my birth. The 1972 Easter Offensive was only broken by US lead sustained carpet bombing counter-campaign. While estimates of the military personnel lost or wounded during this knock-out, dragged-out slug-fest range vastly even today, we’re certain we’ll never know the actual human toll extracted from the South Asian jungles. Thousands, hundreds-of-thousands in that year alone? Just people in the wrong place, because that’s a lot of death for little more than rubber tree plantations. We know that the final tally went well into the millions of people dead in the name of slapdash policy wonks who inhabited the white halls of capital buildings thousands of miles away. Broken individuals testing their favorite military hypothesis with actual lives.

I grew up a child of the 80’s. Some would argue that this was, in America anyway, a period of relative peace and prosperity, and those fuckers would be absolutely wrong. Violence, the threat of loss, these things were everywhere, even in whitebread American suburbs. Always there was the specter of Soviet aggression, and the media played this chord constantly. While I struggle to recall most memories from my childhood, I can vividly recollect duck-and-cover exercises and the unspoken certainty that hiding under a table was rehearsal for bending over and kissing your own ass goodbye.

But it didn’t stop there, never. Red Dawn, Iran-Contra, the War on Drugs, mob battles, train wrecks, plane crashes, refugees, assassination, mass shooting, and buildings bombed; the 1980’s were a violence mill, and this was reflected in the culture of the time.

North

Some of my favorite music from that time is little more than an appreciation of my generation’s violent inheritance. And we made the best, from ribald rhymes intent on eliciting prudish moral outrage to confrontational indictments of the latest criminal insult passing without consequence. We may not have invented the grassroots response, but we did our part to perfect it. Honing our tools the only way anyone had ever shown us.

Our words got sharp. Baby boomer hedge fund managers and MTV executives making piles of cash from the sweat of our backs, politicians and generals extracting the rest right from our hides, we were justifiably indignant. And that indignation is what got us this far because it’s always better than the alternative. Despair is just going to end you.

And now the next confrontation strikes me. This morning, while scrolling through social media, I noticed a displacement maledicta (yeah, that’s fucking latin). One of those curse words composed of similarly shaped eccentric characters designed to suggest the idea of a bad word without actually saying it. “$h%#,” “&*#@&*^%,” and the insidious “@$$hole.” H … e .. double hockey sticks, the message was the product of a guy from my generation. A person who appreciates the same sort of music I grew up loving. Felt the same sort of outrage I did (and sometimes still do). A dude who can and will pepper his speech with the actual negatively pitched expressions.

“I’d rather stay a child/ and keep my self-respect/ if being and adult/ means being like you.” — Dead Kennedys, Life Sentence

Listen, I am well aware that bad words hurt, and in my forty-something years I’ve grown up just enough to understand that there is a time and place for them. So, this isn’t a diatribe against political correctness campaigns, twisted moralist minds, or hypocrisy. And, I should state, matter-of-factly, that I take great pains to improve the diction and vocabulary of my children. But I want to go on record, displacement maledictum are endlessly more insidious and potentially destructive than the actual expression of the swearing’s equivalent.

Just Say No

If your message requires the use of a sharp tool you’ve just reached behind your back and pulled a spoon from your belt. For the pen to prevail mighty, your nib must remain keen.

Hugo Nominations

My PIN still hasn’t shown up, but I’ve been formulating my nomination list. Last year was banner harvest for fans of SFF; a lot of new work from favorites and even some re-issued works (KSR’s California triptych performed by Stefan Rudnicki, for instance) which are eligible under new categories.

At this point in the game, I remain cautiously optimistic. But this may be because of the chronic toxicity that usually erupts within fandom around February. I came into this year’s award season expecting little; I imagined I’d make my nominations quietly.

Jim C. Hines has yet again done a bang up job of consolidating the facts while providing a cogent analysis of the issues. Seriously, these posts just might deserve a nomination for “Best Related Work” if only because they’re bringing together so many disparate pieces of a complex puzzle.

I’ve read much of the officially remastered Sad Puppies public image. Despite the change in leadership coupled with their kinder, gentler, more inclusive choice in words, I can’t help but wonder, if broadening SFF’s reach is really your goal, why associate yourselves with a brand that has consistently been used to narrow that same audience? Sure, the name “Sad Puppies” is convenient, it has a following, but, much because of this, their attempts at inclusiveness feel a lot like a positive spin campaign waged on behalf of the Klan. I guess I should be happy the official SP4 campaign is intent on collection nominations instead of calling names (still they’re having such a hard time avoiding the toxic behavior that got them into so much trouble in the past).

I guess I should be happy the official SP4 campaign is intent on collection nominations instead of calling names (still they’re having such a hard time avoiding the toxic behavior that got them into so much trouble in the past).

As I mentioned, I’m still trying to secure the tools necessary to cast my nominations. At the same time, I’ve been noodling over who-I’m-going-to-put-up-for-what, and that napkin list is starting to develop nicely. But it’s not done. All this means I’m in no hurry to cast or publish my list; the gods of the internets and ‘Merican “taste” forbid that anything on it might be labeled “message fiction.”

All the while I’m holding my breath, waiting for the flash point that we just can’t seem to get around. All its ever taken is for one habitually disgruntled author or fan soaked in the noxious broth of his self-delusion to decide there is a line between him and the rest of fandom. A line that should be demarcated with a wall. A wall that must be defended. A defense that is maintained by flinging stinking dead cow-bombs beyond their border at anyone “misguided” enough to like something they don’t. What-the-fuck-ever!

Despite owning a full-access ticket to last year’s WorldCon, I chose not to attend. Big conventions are a challenge for me. I end up having to pace myself, and often I find that internally I’m left wondering what you all must think of me. An efficient thought-loop generating machine; conventions are maddening to the point that, in the three years since my last seizure, the few times I’ve been nearest reoccurrence have been at conventions. But missing last year has also left me feeling regret. Friends and allies galore went, and I did not.

I did not go because of a potential run-in with the toxic fraction of this insular little world. The rhetoric and cow-tossing got turned up, way up, as the day approached and I let my hotel room and ticket languish.

Right now, I’m considering the possibility of making the trip. I could upgrade my ticket, find a seat on a plane, get a room. All the things. But then there is that potential, the idea that we’ve been historically unable to avoid the flash point.

A Ubiquitous Award Post

Welcome to the new year. It is that time again, and 2015 was a pretty good year for me as a writer. Things got published. Things are eligible for awards.

Essays

Invisible 2 Cover-Full-689x1024 I contributed an essay to Jim Hines’ second annual anthology Invisible 2: Personal Essays on Representation in SF/F. He informs me that the collection is eligible for the Best Related Work.

Flash Fiction and Short Stories

"Walk to School"

“Walk to School”

Dispatches from the Future: B-list: Over the course of the year, I wrote a growing collection of flash fiction. As part of his recovery from kidney surgery and Inktober my friend and Army buddy Jeffrey Witty completed a illustrations for many of them.

  • I believe that this collection of stories would qualify for either Best Short Story or Best Fanzine. There are fourteen episodes within the collection, all of them are under 2,000 words (they’ve always been freely available on Wattpad).
  • Jeff’s adroit illustrations are also eligible for Best Fan Artist.  His ink work is really quite excellent; as the author, I can’t tell you how nice it is to see your words looking back at you.

Tokyo Yakuza #11: Mob Dance (6,027 words) qualifies for Best Short Story. This was a fun little project done as part of an independent tabletop game release.

Novellette

“Ser Pan Comido”

Galaxy Chronicles: Ser Pan Comido (9,891 words) is arguably my best and most popular published work of 2015. I really enjoyed collaborating with Samuel Peralta and Jeff Seymour and the Amazon sales boost this anthology produced was amazing to witness (my Amazon Author rank peaked at #71 in Science Fiction … Wow!).

  • Despite my self-doubt surrounding this story, it has done remarkably well. The collection received some excellent reviews and my contribution was called out more than once.
  • Jeff’s approach to editing was a pleasure and I hope to repeat the experience with some longer works that are on the way. If you’re filling out your ballot and need suggestions for Best Editor please consider Jeff and/or Sam.

Summary

That’s it for me (and the many people that I collaborated with last year). If you’re running behind and can only nominate one work may I suggest that you consider sending Jeffrey Witty to the vanguard. His work is good, and I’d love to motivate him to do more. He’s been secretly scripting and illustrating The Big Red Buckle and I’d love to light a fire under his can to get this done in 2016.

Keep me believing: A writer’s plea

The Son of Man, René Magritte

I had a long day out, in the city and away from my island, today. The result was that I had plenty of time to contemplate some words. It’s the end of another year, and I’ve been mulling over what I did, and did not accomplish this past annum. Added to this I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to work on next year.

When I got home, I knew I needed to return a couple of emails. My story contribution to Doomsday Chronicles has been passed along to the editor and consequently there’s some work to compete. I’ve also spent a lot of time stewing over DISTANCE and workshopping FIRE WEATHER. So, as soon as I was able, I opened up ye olde laptop and dug in. Emails off, plot points recorded, I noticed a post from Django Wexler, Myke Cole, and Mark Laurance.

Turns out an aspiring author named EC Williamson sent Mark a short collection of questions that can be summarized “Share with me the secret of your success.” His questions — addressed on Mark’s blog by the aforementioned authors — segue nicely for me.

Hello Mark,
This is not something I would typically ever do, but I’m just really frustrated. And I apologize for cold messaging you like this. Really, I am.

I’m just getting discouraged, because I’ve been writing for 25 years, and I’m starting to lose belief in myself that I will ever be able to be fortunate to make a living with my writing. Not even an “uber successful” (even though that would be pretty cool) life, but just a comfortable living.

Without the usual cliche of “just keep writing” – do you happen to have anything at all to keep me believing. Writing is, and has ALWAYS been one of the most sacred things that I have had, to lean on in life. It’s the one thing I love to do, and at 43…I’ve been around long enough to know what I want, LOL. Telling a story, sharing the story or journey of someone for others to enjoy, is a great feeling.

It’s easily one of the hardest things to do, successfully. And I don’t think writers get nearly enough of the due respect they deserve for what it takes to be a writer.

Again, sorry to bug ya. If you have a moment to respond, that would be cool, and really appreciated.

If not, no problem there either. Just figured I’d try.

EC Williamson and I seem to share a couple of traits, so this is as much advice for him as it is for myself. And while I haven’t nearly the notoriety nor the publishing history of the three authors that have already responded, I do have a plan for making more success from my words.

  • Understand my place in the changing market: This is not a market prognostication. I’m just not smart enough or sufficiently well connected to know where literary markets, genre or otherwise, will go in 2016. Extend that timeline to 2021 or 2026 and my “roadmap” looks more like a crayon drawing done while having a seizure. And frankly, as much as I read about what reader markets are doing, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change either vector or velocity.Put another way, given the storm that constantly rages around me it would be foolish for me to take either hand from the boat or the wheel. Shaking fists at the maelstrom or giving up because the waves won’t stop pounding my pilot house is pure folly.

    Next year I plan on plotting a better course, I want to take advantage of those close reaches near the edges of the hurricane, so I get to my desired destination as easily as possible.

    This year I published some shorter works. With the publication of Ser Pan Comido in Galaxy Chronicles, I finally got my first taste of something that felt suspiciously like success. Based on these data points I can triangulate a better course toward a more fulfilling goal.

    My advice to EC? Better understand where your position. Do you have representation? Do you have a stack of saleable manuscripts ready to send out? Do you know people at publishing houses? Do those people know that you write, have they read anything you’ve written? Do you have a stack of rejection letters? If the answer to any or all of these is “no” then perhaps you need to take a couple of moments to understand better your orientation within the market. You might be trying to sail into irons or against a strong current.

    There are many, many ways to publish, but if you’re only trying to publish one way you’re passing up opportunities.

  • Develop your voice, perfect your platform: If you’ve spent any time at all at conventions or workshops you’ll hear this one often. Usually, it pops up after you’ve made your way through the standard string of banalities. “Just keep writing.” “Work harder” or “work smarter.”It took me a little while to realize what this means.

    Consider if you will, one John Scalzi. Arguably, one of the most prolific authors in our sector of the universe. He understands that regular feeding and proper grooming of his fans is the critical component to his success. And he gives the people that love his work a routine amount of kibble.

    First, he writes stories that people want to read. This is important, and it’s one of those things we can all use as a model. If I find the magic munchables that will bring many new readers into my herd then I will write that story a million times and then sideways to keep them begging for more.But Scalzi was never content to stop there. He’s made it a routine to take the witty dialogue that anyone might find in his books and send it out into the internets as often as possible. His blog, his twitter feed, his public appearances — all of those things are chock full of the words you might expect to read in any of his stories.

    Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an act. I believe that this is his voice, both within his storytelling and in his routine life. The fact that so many people find his banter compelling while entertaining is exactly what we all want. He’s built an impressive career in words just by being himself.

    In 2015, Ser Pan Comido did okay. I felt it was an okay story too, but in the days running up to its release I started to wonder if this was my voice. Would my words dazzle in just the right way to win me a bigger audience?

    Right now, it feels like most people read it because they’re doing me a favor. That’s not what I want. That’s not how I want to build this beast. If I were sitting next to a blazing fire telling that story tonight, I know it would come out differently. Perhaps I needed more time with it?

    GOAT, on the other hand, I know is a better story. I was moved to write it; I anticipate it will move some readers too. This is how I think and talk. It’s based in my experience, events and adventures that moved me, so the hope is that it will do the same for some of you.

    In 2016, I’m going to examine what I can write that works and why. Then incorporate those lessons into the new collection of words I will produce. It is about building trust with the readers you have so they know what to expect from the words you’ll soon write.

    My advice to EC? Pay attention to the way people react to you when you’re talking. Figure out what works and what doesn’t because the way you relate to other people in person is almost certainly embedded in what you write. Your voice as a person and your voice as an author are conjoined and if the former doesn’t do the job, the latter will fall flat. Look for ways to build trust with your readers. They want to trust you, so don’t let them down.

  • Read more: My final personal goal of 2016 and last piece of advice, read more.I came across this bit from a 1935 Esquire article written by Hemmingway and I believe that it’s an excellent writer’s rule.

    “The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of one piece.”

    My plan? Read what I’m writing in exactly this manner. In fact, I do this already. But to be able to “correct” as I go along most effectively I’ve got to give other people’s work the same degree of criticality.

    Understand what does and does not work. If I learn to discern adequate writing from truly inspired and memorable prose in other’s manuscripts, my writing will consequently and effortlessly be improved.

    This last year I had the privilege to read a number of books and works in progress. And in that hairy mess of words and imagined moments, there was this one perfect hook that haunts me while I write.

    “Despair could never touch a morning like this.
    “The air was cool, and smelled of sage. It had the clarity that comes to southern California only after a Santa Ana wind has blown all haze and history out to sea — air like a telescopic glass, so that the snowcapped San Gabriels seemed near enough to touch, though they were forty miles away.”

    “Pacific Edge”, Kim Stanley Robinson

    When I read this I knew that I wanted to approximate the truth of that first sentence in something I’d write. I hold it up and compare words I’ve written against its precision. I measure myself against its impact.

    Advice for EC? Read what you write, read it until you like what you’ve written. Read it, rewrite it, until you’re certain it’s as good as, if not better than, your favorite writing.

Look, I’m 43 years old too. I’ve been writing for a long time although presumably I haven’t been trying to make a living at it as long has you have. But listen, I understand your despair. I too, from time to time, toy with the idea of quitting.

We both know that the genesis of quitting is the bastard child of a mutual frustration with our own personal limitations coupled with the mean anxiety of obscurity. It stinks being a featureless member of the crowd. But it is a far worse fortune to languish in a life devoid of story, lacking even clumsy expression.

That is why I write. I want to create something new, special and completely my own.

Words shouldn’t be written for a profit, notoriety, or even recognition. Those are all potential fringe benefits; possible consequences of publication in an increasingly democratic marketplace. If you need something to believe in then consider the notion that you might write some true words, you might be able to relate a moment of emotion with a stranger and have them utterly understand, you could dream up the world’s funniest joke, or describe a sunset that invariably provokes people to shed tears of joy.

All of these things are only possible if you believe in yourself and then write solely from that faith.