Buckle Up

I’ve been sitting at the coffee shop again, killing time before school lets out early in anticipation of the Seattle Snowpocalypse that’s anticipated to being any moment now. While I’m here, I’ve been attempting to reconstruct a plot for Fire Weather and mulling over our heating situation. We’ve been toasty for a while now, but I keep recalling the last big freeze we experienced in the area (back in 2006), and I’m sort of anticipating that we’ll be without power again.

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Under these lines of thought is the notion that I haven’t talked about what I’m grateful for in a while. And away we go!

Seat belts and safety nets, yep all those things that keep people safe or prop people up when they invariably fall down. Catastrophic mitigation efforts that are everywhere, and I am grateful that they are.

Recent Reading

Bernard Cornwell’s latest War of the Wolf consumed most of my January. I felt sort of obliged to read this mostly because it’s a continuation of Uhtred of Bebbanburg’s tale. And it’s the consummate, well-crafted storytelling as one should expect from a master such as Cornwell, but, and it took me two readings of the novel to realize this, it’s about an old man. That’s what makes it, in the cannon of Uhtred, super special.

Truth be told, there just aren’t that many good stories about old people. Why? Probably, because no one wants to read about some old dude’s sword swinging sciatica. Instead, most audiences apparently wish to learn about the youthful genesis of all those pinched butt nerves. You yong’uns and yer hopping about and booty shaking. GET OFF MY LAWN!

During my second listening, I realized that Cornwell’s craft was directed to the concept that age can limit our activity, but it doesn’t change our character. Uthred is still Uthred, despite the limitations age has imposed on his body. Wasp’s Sting still hisses in its scabbard, Bebbanburg still stands implacably at the peak of Northumbria, but Uthred is slowed and takes more care as he deals with the upstart Sköll and the Saxon’s to the South.

So that’s my first fiction insight and the second? The second is that life before safety belts genuinely, without question, you-can’t-argue-this-even-a-little-bit, sucked. We’ve come so very, very far since the days when a scratch could end a life. When death and brutal violence were our mainstays and not rare exceptions to the norm.

SOTU

Yes, I actually watched the highlights of the State of the Union speech. Yes, I felt threatened. And yes, I acknowledge the multitude of lies that were told in a setting that should only allow brutal honesty. But there’s no riddle in any of that. Nope. “All that was to be expected,” he’s says while breathing a cognizant “Oh shit!”

Safety belts? Yeah, here’s the up-sight I’d like to share. During the SOTU He Who Should Not Be Named uttered the following, “America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

With the prospect of too much snow headed my way I can unquestionably say that I welcome government intervention. Please come plow my roads. I’m glad there is a quality education available for my kids. Please, help prepare my offspring for the future. In fact, in just about every aspect of my life, I’m pleased that the burden’s of living can be shared and the risks to my life can be equitably mitigated.

I do not embrace the anarchy that deregulation and “independence” will inevitably bring. These are not the words of contemporary Conservatism, rather the fiddle song that plays while Roam burns.

I’m grateful for safety belts in cars, for snow plows on roads, public schools funded by tax dollars, ambulance services, interstate highway networks, maintenance crews, single-payer healthcare, grid electrical supply, housing projects, and the whole damn enchilada that is modernity. I’m grateful for all of this because the alternative is hissing steel in leather scabbards, and I’m too old for that.

Corrective vs Reflective Influence

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Writing Prompt: How does this huge spider make you feel without using simile.

Today, I’d like to consider the happy realization that I’m still becoming literate. Today, I’d like to thank the universe for random, fruitful encounters too, because the latter gratitude is predicated on the former.

I met a woman at the coffee shop this morning who refocused my mind on a lot of things. During our conversation, I discovered a way to articulate a good number of things that will help not only my writing practice develop but many other aspects of my existence.

Our conversation began because of an off-hand comment I made. She was sitting down at the table next to me and appeared chilled. While she curled up in her down coat, I mentioned that the coffee shop really should invest in some comforters we could just wrap up in as we sip our bean juice.

“Oh, we just got back from Methow,” she responded, and then we started covering some bases. The intrinsic anxiety of electric cars. The gradual, often slow, development of children’s travel tolerance. It meandered for a while until we locked onto the creative process.

“A poet has been appointed ambassador. A playwright is elected president. Construction workers stand in line with office managers to buy a new novel. Adults seek moral guidance and intellectual challenge in stories about warrior monkeys, one-eyed giants, and crazy knights who fight windmills. Literacy is considered a beginning, not an end.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Operating Instructions

Writing Groups

Since I made the transition from a mechanistic approach to life to one driven by imagination I’ve been a part of a number of these groups. Some, not all, have helped me reach beyond my current place in a story, effectively leveling me up as a writer. Others, unfortunately, seem little more than side quests where I waste much time foraging endlessly for tokens that cannot be bartered.

“Why?”

Holy cow, have I thought about this. Tried to put it into words, sought to transform my experiences with these groups into, if not a set of Laws to Write By, at least some guidelines to be aware of as I engage my imagination. And, objectively, I’ve failed to transform these adventures into anything other than a confusing, self-contradicting, impediment creating collection of reasons to never write another word. That is until today. This morning, in fact, at the coffee shop.

“Still why?”

Because I’m not starting from the right place. Writing, fuck that, creating anything is a deeply personal practice. You can’t imagine a world, with a bazillion possibilities, while consuming marketing advice about how to sell that. Your head is likely to twist right off your neck, fall on the floor, and roll down the stairs and into the street where raccoons will gleefully braid your nostril hair.

That is to say, I can’t write anyone else’s story. I’ve got to stop trying to do that.

So, to collect my thoughts and get back to the topic, I’ve experienced a number of different writing groups — some helpful, some not so much — and the difference when you peel back this pile of onions is that the helpful ones don’t bother correcting what you’ve submitted. They don’t tell you that something is implausible. They don’t point out line edits that you need to make or suggest sentence reconstruction. These groups are keenly aware of the need for all that, but they also know that’s why we hire editors.

Instead these instrumental, super valuable groups understand that story, even if written for an audience of one, requires a sort of recognition. They answer the question “Do you see the value in this story? If so, where’s it at? Once we know where it’s at, how can we make it much more valuable?”

If creating is a lonely, individual method of imagination then we should define how collaborative efforts, such as writing groups, should help us achieve our particular set of goals. If they can’t and we, as creatives, can’t steer them in that direction then it’s critical we move on.

Setting the Standard

If forty-six years of life has taught me anything, it’s that there is a difference between “it’s” and “its” that I need to be vigilantly aware of and that it’s really important to know what’s important. I’m not sure which of these is more important.

“Despair could never touch a morning like this.”

–Kim Stanley Robinson, Pacific Edge: Three Californias

I am, however, aware that I can ask for editorial help to fix my misuses of the contraction.

Our conversation touched on this idea quite a bit because it’s foundational to success. I stuck those eight words from KSR in this post because to me they represent a fulfillment of what is important to me in my writing. Those eight words are like a protein, folded and unfolded just so; when my eyes or ears suck them into neural receptors and transmit them to the thinking part of my mind for consideration, they fit perfectly. They grab me, they transform me, they light a fire in me.

I don’t know how or why KSR strung those words together. Why he didn’t start this novel with “A morning like this, despair could never touch.” Why he didn’t then go one to write a dialogue between his protagonist and his cast? But, for me anyway, this is by far one of my favorite hooks of all time. It drew me into his tale as if he’d written those words just for me.

Which, now that I think about it is a funny way to look at imagination. Is there any other way to share our experience, our emotions, our inner selves than like this? It’s so random, but there it is.

I’ve known for a long time now what I want my writing to do. I want it to tell a story like this. My goal is to unfold a word-protein in someone else’s mind correctly, just like these eight words unfold in mine.

Literacy

Writing for a market is like meditating for someone else’s approval. One of the alternatives to the word “literacy” is “scholarship,” and both of these words fail to convey the actual meaning I see between them. I’m grateful not just that my brain can decode language in its written form, this is the beginning Le Guin talked about. Instead, I’m thankful that literacy is a study. It is a pursuit of giving and receiving, the exchange of ideas with ever increasing clarity.

Ginnungagap

This morning over tea my wife and I clicked through a new life insurance policy questionnaire. She has meant to increase her level of coverage because what her job offers wouldn’t be a flash in the pan if she left us. I’ve been avoiding the conversation for all the usual reasons.

I’m loathed to consider my own demise. I’m even more frightened at the thought of the death of people I love. I’m afraid enough that I’ve never really bothered to name these fears.

And so here we are. What this blog seems to be to me is a crossroads, a place of decisions.

“Fear not death for the hour of your doom is set and none may escape it.”

― Volunga Saga

I’ve been reading (with my ears) the Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. I’ve admired his protagonist Uhtred of Bebbanburg because of his unshakable belief in fate. Right now I’m on the second to the last book in the series, and even though Uhtred is an “old” man, by the standards of the time, he still feels the weavers’ hands on his thread. His faith in the Norns frees him to focus on whatever is before him. He is undistracted, always sharp, relentlessly moving through his own life with singular purpose.

“Destiny is all, Ravn liked to tell me, destiny is everything. He would even say it in English, “Wyrd biõ ful ãræd.”
― Bernard CornwellThe Last Kingdom

I find myself wanting for that surety.

I also marvel at the Cornwell’s voice. How he deftly transports his reader into his Uhtred’s vision of the world. Past the moral ambiguity of his actions and into the faith that the Fates weave his future. Yes, I love his action scenes. Sure enough, I feel my heart pound and my fires are stoked when Uhtred stands in the shield wall or when he faces Ubba beyond the hazel bows I feel his singular focus and the accomplishment of his victory. Cornwell is a master of character. Even when Uhtred is beset by ambiguity, self-doubt, or worse remorse Cornwell finds the way back to certainty. “I touched Thor’s Hammer,” and suddenly we know that Ginnungagap will consume all, the only thing that matters is what lies before us. The enemy beyond the iron clad edge of an ash shield.

“I touched Thor’s hammer, then Serpent-Breath’s hilt, for death was stalking us. God help me, I thought, touching the hammer again, Thor help us all, for I did not think we could win.”
― Bernard CornwellThe Pale Horseman

My fears? They are nothing other than the usual. Helplessness, loss, grief, oblivion; add to this I lack faith, there is no eternal Hall waiting for me when I die. Despite this I know there is the Ginnungagap and so I narrow my gaze and touch the hilt of my sword.

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?

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.

Don’t Forget to Dream

D.S.I Helium 3 Transport Vehicle by Adam Burn

I’m sitting in the coffee shop; A-bear is playing his heart over at preschool, and I’m just not getting into it this morning. Derp move number one, I’ve been tugging at my chin hairs while I read from the ever expanding athenaeum of “Advice Offered to Writers on Writing and Stuff.” The truth of the matter is that I’m not sure what I’m going to write next, and my Twitter feed has once again delivered up this highly distracting narrative in which I willingly participate. Hunched over and fuming, once more, it occurs to me that this is not a good way to live your life.

More importantly, it doesn’t seem like a very productive way to spend your precious writing time.

It’s probably not helping that the new baristas have changed up the music, and I’ve since had to plug my headphones in and crank up the subtle white noise of Coffitivity. Yeah, that’s right, I’m listening to “Morning Murmur” — a recording of a coffee shop while sitting in an actual cafe drinking coffee — how’s that for bathos?

“So what, precisely, is the problem Matt?” you ask.

Well, I started with this blog post from the esteemed and successful Chuck Wendig: Peaks and Valleys: The Financial Realities of a Writer’s Life. Realize, in no way is this me jumping onto his current cluster event. Rather, it’s me taking a critical look at why I seem to come away from his advice posts feeling defeated and ready to quit.

This post and the advice it references are just one member of a distinguished lineage of columns I’d like to label “The Stark Reality Collection.” I’m starting to wonder if it’s even possible for authors, especially those in the SFF community, first to begin making a living from their work and later not tell the world how hard it’s going to be. Often I come away from reading this stuff convinced I’ve done everything wrong. I live in the wrong place, I know all the wrong people, I didn’t go to the right school, or workshop, I write the wrong things, and I put my pants on the wrong way — that’s how wrong I feel.

Defeated before I begin, my options seem limited. Maybe I should just take Wendig’s intimation and “move on to more stable ground.”

Here’s the thing. Fiction moves me. Let me say that again. FICTION MOVES ME. I love a good story. Terry Pratchett’s farewell piece The Sheperd’s Crown recently reduced me to a blubbering mess more than once. And I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from my recent readings of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Wild Shore Triptych.

I know that I’ve discovered my earthworm. I know that my stories are good enough, and my writing is compelling and entertaining. And yes, I love doing this, even when it’s fucking difficult.

Standing up to assert these strong feelings of self-determination and conviction I rip the headphone out of my computer and nearly dump hot coffee all over my lap. “But really,” I say to myself taking a calming breath. “I don’t need anyone to tell me how hard it’s going to be.”

Want to help successful-author-making-a-living-from-your-words? Stop telling everyone about the big pile of shit we can look forward to wading. That’s the thing about piles of crap; they’re apparent. Everyone knows that they’re there, usually because, much like yourselves, we’re busy trying to clean it off our shoes.

Better, tell us what moves you. Why did you stick with writing even when you weren’t sure when your next meal was coming? What do you do in the morning to warm up for writing? What inspired some piece of fiction we can’t put down. How do you deal with criticism fro your readers or even your editor? Writer’s, especially the good ones, I’ve realized have developed strategies to exceed the piles of crap life leaves on our paths.

I write a lot, I don’t sell a lot (yet). I know that I’ve yet to develop a “real” audience. The numbers necessary to lift me out of this valley just aren’t there yet. This is the sole reason I keep looking into the Library of Stark Reality. I’m looking for feasible ways to grow my audience as I get ready for near term release dates. Want to help? Tell me about the concrete things you did to expand your audience.

And while I acknowledge that it won’t always be easy, this morning I’m resolved that as I build my author platform and find more readers, I will endeavor to imagine with audacity. The boundaries that limit me aren’t worth talking about except when exceeded.