23 December 2010

A Car Theft for Christmas

As a longtime driver of extremely used cars, I've never been in a position to gracefully resell a car or (heaven forbid) turn one in to a dealer against the purchase of a new car. The two cars I've owned by my very own self have gone melodramatically.

The first, a 1965 Ford Meteor, rusted out. My mechanic told me to sell it, but I just couldn't let it go.

The frame broke in half when they tried to put it on the hoist to check the brakes.

I cried for an evening, and stayed up all night drinking a bottle of wine all by myself as a tribute to that fine, extremely large vehicle. I remembered the good times: the time her muffler fell off in the alley and I had to drive to the mechanic hearing the mighty eight-cylinder engine's full roar, the muffler on the passenger seat beside me. It was extraordinary.

Then there was the time my friends and I drove her all the way to St. Louis and back.

I was still driving the Meteor when I met Dave. Let me tell you, a giant green vintage car that looks like it was used on the set of Mad Max for a while is a great thing to have if you're trying to meet a guy like Dave. I won't say what kind of guy that is, because Dave is many things, but let's just say he was greatly impressed by that car, and that greatly impressed me.

When the Meteor died, I would have been really stuck for a car if my dad hadn't given me his old Dodge Spirit. I know, right? From super sexy vintage badass car to...mom and dad car. The Spirit wasn't exactly my dream car, but I was super poor and in no position to complain at all. And you know, that circa 1994, burgundy wonder with its matchy-matchy interior was not so bad. Six cylinders gave her a lot of pep. And I didn't care if the dog gucked up the interior with his muddy feet. We've gotten along well enough for the last four years or so.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I went out to get into the car and take the dog to some remote hiking trails for a good, solid walk.

Someone had broken into the Spirit over night. They'd tried to drill through the driver side door and failed, apparently, then drilled through the passenger side door (the street light was shining on that side - better visibility), and gotten into the car.

At that point, my neighbour, who happened to be awake at 4:30 in the morning, looked out her window and saw the guy enter my car. She woke her husband up and told him to go out and check out what was happening.

In getting dressed, he turned on a light. I guess the guy saw it and ran away.

He'd already pulled the ignition out. As I understand it, he was about five seconds away from starting the engine and driving away.

Long story short, because of my fabulous neighbour, there was still a car to send to the garage and be assessed for the insurance claim. The insurance company called it a total - a little bit too bad, since the car was still in running order. At the same time, the payout was more than I could possibly have gotten if I'd tried to sell the car.

So today, Dave and I bit the bullet and bought a new car. Well - new to us, and newer than any other car I've owned. It's a 2009, previously used by a rental agency. We're happy with it. It's fun to drive.

In some ways, that would be car thief did us a favour. Not as big a favour as our neighbour, though, which is why we gave her and her husband cookies. Mister car thief, you'll just have to settle for an internet shout-out.

Merry Christmas, everyone. But an extra special Happy New Year to the car thieves out there.

17 December 2010

Don Hertzfeldt's Wisdom Teeth

Don Hertzfeldt of Bitter Films releases Wisdom Teeth on YouTube, "just in time to ruin the holidays." I laughed hard, and nervously, through the whole thing.

16 December 2010

Conspiracy, the Paranormal and Me

Image by Ibrahim Iujaz of Not So Good Photography.

I'm in love with modern conspiracy theory and current research on paranormal phenomena and their attendant concerns about shifting realities, earth changes, dimensions of consciousness and the darker aspects of the powers that be. If you're like me and you want to eschew vampires and werewolves for a different flavor of beast, might I suggest reptilian overlords and black-eyed kids? You need only dip your finger into the rich, weird soup of paranormal and conspiracy research to find endless fodder for new mythologies and world building.

I'm not (so far) drawing directly on any of the common tropes of conspiracy theory, like 2012 predictions, the New World Order, or UFOs. I've dabbled a bit in shadow people and old hag syndrome (although the latter isn't new - it's quite old).

I think what really interests me in this research is the way that attending to extreme experiences makes you feel. After listening to a podcast or reading about paranormal and conspiracy perspectives, the world around me tends to feel just a bit shifted from normal. There are lots and lots of us whose experiences don't fit into the comfortable, mundane boundaries of the everyday. When you listen to a story from the fringes, and the teller is obviously speaking his truth, it changes your ideas of the possible. For a writer - especially for a genre writer - that is a very good thing.

As I'm continuing to work on my current novel, I'm putting my characters through the kind of profound paradigm shift that occurs to people who undergo fringe experiences.

If you want to get a taste of what I'm talking about, I can't recommend a better entry point than the Mysterious Universe podcast. Hosted by the lovely Benjamin Grundy and Aaron Wright, the podcast covers "the strange, extraordinary, weird, and wonderful and everything in between." Focusing on the UFO phenomenon and paranormal news, Grundy and Wright read stories from around the world and discuss the implications each week. Bonus factor: cool Aussie accents.

If you want to go deeper down the rabbit hole, Red Ice Radio is where I would suggest you go. Unlike MU, which tends to filter stories through discussion, Red Ice chooses researchers from an astonishing range of alternative backgrounds and perspectives, and gives them an hour or more to share their stories, theories and points of view. I've learned more about the huge variety of things that people can think about and research from Red Ice than I ever imagined possible. They discuss "Ancient Civilizations, Geopolitics, Conspiracy, Secret Societies, Fraternal Orders, Esoteric and Occult Subjects, Science and Technology, Phychology, Space, Spirituality, Health, Religion, History, The Future, Transhumanism, GMO, Archaeology, The New World Order and much more." Host Henrik Palmgren approaches every interview without judgement and with questions aimed at allowing the guest an optimal chance to share his views. I've especially enjoyed interviews with Neil Kramer, Christopher Moors, and Jeremy Narby, but you'll have to find your own magic combo. Bonus Factor: cool Swedish accent.

15 December 2010

You Show Me Yours, I'll Show You Mine! January 3rd

Boggers Sarah (Falen) Ahiers of Falen Formulates Fiction, Hannah Kincade of Musings of a Palindrome, and Summer Frey of And this Time, Concentrate! are hosting a celebratory post NaNoWriMo 2010 Blogfest on January 3rd.

Presenting...

The deal: on January 3rd, 2011 we all post up to 500 words excerpted from our 2010 NaNo Novels.

Sign up here at And this Time, Concentrate! and join in the fun.

14 December 2010

Read Any Good Books Lately?

Lovecraft and Derleth enthusiasts Bad Advice for Good Times have a very important message for us all.



On a slightly more obscure, even more brilliant note:



Well played, Bad Advice, well played.

13 December 2010

Writing Practice, Morning Pages, Raw Word Count

I have a tai chi friend who struggles with the concept of practice. At one point, he said, "I think in some way's it's better to sit in a chair and think about tai chi, rather than practice and do it wrong."

Can you spot the faulty logic here?

Keanu knows the answer:


That's right, Keanu. Tai chi is something you practice by doing it.

Likewise, if you want to write, the way to get better is to do it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with an aspiring writer friend of mine about how many words you can manage to get down on the page in a day. She was talking in admiring tones about a friend of hers who wrote a large manuscript in a relatively short period of time. The friend had done somewhere around 1200-1500 words a day. Which is pretty good. (Although some people claim you need 10,000 hours or one million words before you stop writing crap.)

I averaged a little better than that during NaNoWriMo this year, although on most of the days that I wrote, I produced between 2500 and 3k.

In many ways, this has been the year when I discovered I could do raw word count. Of all the lofty creative goals I set back in late December 2009, my 2010 raw word count goal (225k, if you must know) is the only one it looks like I'll meet. But it's also been, in many ways, the most important goal.

Because I learned a lot in those 225k (or, I should say, 200k - I've got about 25k left at this point).

My writing friend was a little mystified by all this raw word output. She has trouble squeezing out 300 or 400 words in a day of writing.

I'm not trying to boast here. But I was trying to figure out why I was able to get a couple thousand words of raw, rough draft in a couple of hours. The answer? I have done a whole heck of a lot of writing practice.

Back in the early 90s, when I was first realizing my dream to write, I discovered Natalie Goldberg. I read her Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life back then, and it was a revelation. Mostly, the idea that simply writing for writing's sake was productive and helpful and made you a better writer, felt correct to me. It also took a lot of pressure off. Natalie Goldberg recommends writing in ten-minute stints. Set a timer and go, keeping your hand moving throughout the ten minutes. I did a lot of timed writing when I first read Wild Mind, and for a long time afterward. Unlike journaling, timed writing is just stream of consciousness stuff. Goldberg says it's about learning to trust your mind. I agree with that. It's also about building stamina as a writer.

Fast forward to early 2007. For some reason - I don't remember why now - I picked up a copy of Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. This book is laid out as a multi-week course, with different exercises and areas to explore in order to release any blocks you have to creativity. The fundamental structure of Cameron's program is two-fold. She recommends a weekly "artist's date," where you take yourself to places or allow yourself time to do something that inspires you - what Cameron calls "filling the well." She also recommends what she calls "morning pages:" three raw, unedited, written-as-fast-as-you can stream of consciousness pages of writing, done first thing each morning.

Now, I never did get the hang of the artist's date, except for when I was living in Washington, DC, and I could go to a different and free museum every single weekend. But I did do morning pages, for a long time. They are time consuming. I have since fallen off the morning pages wagon. But I learned a whole heck of a lot by doing them. (If you're like me and barely functional in the morning, take heart: according to Noelle Stern, writing at Archetype: The Fiction Writer's Guide to Psychology, doing morning pages at night will not kill you or anyone else.)

Now, when I do raw, unedited, stream-of-consciousness writing, it's in the service of plot and what I call raw word count - the number of words worth of creative fiction I've written in a year. The 200k I've done so far includes 61 079 words of new novel, a bunch of short stories, and pieces of another, now-defunct novel. Not all of that word count was easy to execute: a lot of it came out with the approximate elegance of phlegm at the end of a bad cold. But the habit of just letting it all flow out on the page is something I trained myself to do through lots of practice, lots of timed writing, and lots of morning pages.

I've had people - creative writing teachers, specifically - sneer at the concept of writing 50k in one month, or getting a ton of writing down in short order. And I'm intrigued by claims that your creative juices really flow if you write as little as 500 words a day. But for me, I have to say, I'm comfortable with larger output, if I know my plot point A and point B for the day. I'm amazed at how little 3k really is, how little plot happens in that space, and some days, the best days, I'm scrambling to get it all down and keep up with the idea factory.

My point is, writing fast is something you can learn to do. Likewise, writing is something you can learn to do. If your dream is to write creatively, you have to practice. Your brain has a writing muscle, and you're training to become an Olympic athlete. Writing practice, morning pages, and raw word count are your training tools.

11 December 2010

The Fussy Writer's Guide to Making Time to Write, part 3

This post is part 3 of a 3-part series. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

It's not just about the writing, you know. It's about having time to dream. It's about a sense of spaciousness. It's about having room to breathe.


Without these things, I personally think we're not fully human. We need time. You need time.

For me, the answer to getting a dribble of income going has been turning (again) to freelancing. For a while I worked for a charitable organization, writing web copy. That was an okay gig. Eventually, I discovered the world of online content writing. I write for a large studio that offers up front pay, and my goal for 2011 is to get more into writing for revenue share. I've barely begun putting ads on my own websites, mostly because my track record in writing consistently for those is crap (obviously), but it's something to consider. There are people out there who offer great and free advice on how to get into online writing. Start with No Job for Mom, and if that turns your crank, try The Freelancer Today's Make Money Writing a Blog series.

Let me be clear about this: online writing is not your key to instant wealth, and I don't recommend it for everyone. Most sites pay a scanty amount. You have to write very well, very fast, in order to make an okay amount. If you're going for revenue share / ad revenue, you have to be persistent and you have to not have a pile of bills or debt waiting for immediate payment. Many people have a fantasy that writers make a ton of money, and that there's some magical online source that will pour cash into your bank account if you can only get there.

This fantasy is false, at least for me. (Of course, if any of you have reached the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, feel free to comment!) My experience is that online writing is okay part time work that pays an okay part time wage, most of the time.

But remember how you just spent some time paring down your expenses? It doesn't matter if your income is a dribble. Your outflow is also a dribble. And you'll have the luxury of time.

It doesn't have to be freelance writing. Try dogwalking. Or part-time receptionist work. Or anything that doesn't make you feel like hell all the time.

If you're a fussy writer, like me, it will be worth it.

10 December 2010

The Fussy Writer's Guide to Making Time to Write, part 2


This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here.

So, let's say you're a fussy writer like me. You want to write a lot of the time, while having some time left over for other life pursuit type stuff, but you also have bills to pay.

Two words: marry rich.

Just kidding. (I am not totally kidding. If you find someone to love who can support you in your vocation/s, take them up on it.)

But okay, let's say that marrying rich is not an option. Here's the first thing you need to do:

Pare down your expenses to the lowest possible amount.

I'm talking about really looking at where your money is going. Shave your budget right down. Decide what you need and what you don't need. Second car? Get rid of it. You won't need to go anywhere: you'll be writing. New shoes? Buy them later. Clothes? Value Village, Goodwill, or some other discount store. Or, consider this: that old sweater you already own is perfect writing gear. No one is going to see you in the workout pants that have a hole in the knee.

Obviously, how you do this is up to you. Some expenditures will have obvious solutions. I traded my book purchasing habits for trips to the library: easy peasy. I planned major expenditures - car repairs, vet visits, dentist trips - such that they spread out over time, rather than clumping up in one month where their effects would be disastrous.

The big thing for me was groceries. In our household, my partner covers rent and utilities, and I deal with groceries, car insurance, basic car maintenance, and internet. Groceries were the biggest item on my list. They still are, since I'm not too willing to compromise on eating healthfully. But I did cut back on our bills by shopping almost exclusively from the perimeter of the grocery store - the dairy, bread, meat and produce sections - focusing on healthy, unprocessed food rather than prepared stuff. I had been doing this already, but I amped it up pretty extremely.

My point is that it's vital to cut back on all expenses if you want to live like a fussy writer.

Why?

Fussy writing is not about taking 15 minutes a day to try to squeeze in your writing dream. It's about great gouts of time that you can roll around in and play with and dream in.

If you want more time, the easiest way to get it is to cut back on the hours you work. Negotiate a day off. Move to part time. Move to a lower responsibility job. The bottom line here is, you need to make a change. Time is money, people. Less money earned equals more time.

Being frugal - as extremely as you possibly can - will allow you the freedom to write.

Maybe you're entertaining fantasies of J.K. Rowling-like success. That's totally fine. Entertain those fantasies all you want. The fantasies won't pay the bills. That novel you're writing, well, it might not either. But it definitely won't get written if you don't take the time.

Here's what I've learned in the last couple of years of actually writing: dreams of success don't even come close to the happiness you feel when you know you're making yourself into a better writer. Finishing a short story and submitting it is a great accomplishment. Drafting a novel, realizing it's horrible, and drafting another one is good, hard work. Learning new tricks and understanding more and more about how to make your writing better - that is where it's at. All of these things are so, so sweet, and all of them are only possible if you spend great gouts of time on your writing.

I have to admit I'm at an advantage here, although it probably won't sound like one. When I decided I was done with higher education, it was at the crest of the economic crisis (which, admittedly, seems to have continued cresting). I was not super employable, and there were no jobs, anyway. I learned to budget on no income to speak of, and I learned exactly how little I could get by on. I realized that a full-time job isn't necessary for me right now. I would imagine that many of my decisions would seem totally absurd to someone with a good job (or at least a job), but coming from the totally unemployed side, working part time looked great and not scary at all.

Since I've started to cobble together a living, I've found that it is totally possible to fit work into my life, not the other way around.

More on that in part 3.

09 December 2010

The Fussy Writer's Guide to Making Time to Write, part 1

I am a fussy writer. I am also a fussy cook, a fussy walker-in-the-woods-avec-chien, a fussy meditator, and a fussy tai chi practitioner.

What I mean by "fussy" is that when I find something that I like to do, I want to do it right. I want to spend lots and lots of time doing it. I want to clear my schedule for that thing. I want to take my time. I want to treasure it. Otherwise, I find it difficult to focus, and I become a cranky jerk. I don't feel right about myself, or about other people. I become irrational. I lose it. It's indecorous.

When I decided to clear my schedule for writing, three years ago or so, I began to poke around looking for advice from other writers in my situation. I talked to friends about it. A lot of them were trying to skootch 15 minutes of writing into their week, or whatever. They were sad. They weren't really writing.

My martial arts background has served me well, in many ways. I know that you can't learn something by practicing it for 15 minutes once a week.

I wanted to find writers like the one I wanted to be, meaning writers who write all the time and still stay afloat financially without becoming super burned out.

I spent some time researching this. I looked into writer's blogs of various kinds. The successful ones mostly seem to have hatched from an egg with a contract with a major publishing company clutched in their yolky talons. When a well-established writer did talk about the days before he or she made it, the stories tend to be about slogging at a day job and crying into the keyboard while becoming increasingly sleep-deprived. While I respect and admire people who work at soul-grinding, mind-sucking jobs - or even just full-time, regularly tiring jobs - and then come home and still find time to write copious gouts, I just can't.

I'm getting old? I don't know if that's an excuse or a reason. I'm getting impatient is more like it.

With a little more research, I found some blogs by writers just starting out, who talked about freelancing to fill in the gap in income. Fortunately for some of these aspiring writers, they happened to be skilled in certain highly valued and well-paying areas that meant they could divide their time between writing and paid work and still make a good living. Unfortunately for me, my degrees are all in the arts. These days, let me tell you, it seems that nobody wants an English major. Especially not one with a PhD.

Ultimately, my goal was to create time to write, meet my financial needs, and allow me to feel like I still had some juice left over after I did work for pay.

Because there is a dearth of information out there about the seedier choices made by aspiring writers, and I am (pretty happily) living some of those seedier choices, I wanted to use the space of this blog to post about how I'm managing to stay afloat while still doing what I want.

I hope that parts two and three of this series will be useful to you, especially if you're facing a similar set of conundrums.

15 November 2010

NaNoWriMo, Day Whatever

I had vague thoughts, this year, as October turned into November, of blogging NaNoWriMo as I have for the past two years. I had fun tracking my progress and pulling random stats out of my novel in '08 and '09. It made me feel like I was accomplishing something each day, and like I was accountable for laying down raw word count as often as I possibly could.

Here's what's happened this year. It's November 15 and I have 32, 876 words written. I'm about to add to that word count in the last hour of today, before I hit the hay.

I am amazed, myself. As a classic procrastinator and bona fide last-minute Sally, I don't know what to say for myself, except "woo!" and "hoo!"

Basically, if I wasn't so wiped out, I would be all:

Stats:
Demonic explosions: 3
Serial killers: 2 or 4, depending on how you count 'em
Tentacle rapes: 1
Superpower transfers: 1 or 2, depending on if you count tentacles as a superpower

This month also marks the first time since I started doing serious content writing for a certain rather large online organization (under my other, some might say actual name) that I've been able to keep up with my quota. I've been a busy bee.

And I have to say, I'm really happy with the novel so far. More about that later, skaters! Happy NaNo-ing.

30 October 2010

Happy Halloween!

Today, let us all remember the emotion behind the holiday: pure, unmitigated fear. Brought to you by the Ellen DeGeneres show's writer Amy Rhodes, who takes the Universal Studios haunted house maze like a scream queen.










Via The Daily What.

20 October 2010

The Bell at Misfit Magazine

My flash piece, "The Bell," is now up at Misfit Magazine. Check it!

09 September 2010

Matilda Doesn't Want to Just Be Friends

Back in grad school, we used to play a game called "What should you have read by now but haven't?" Because we were people whose very lives depended on appearing extraordinarily well read, this game required copious amounts of alcohol.

Romeo and Juliet always scored big points, especially among the Renaissance crowd. Anything by Jane Austen would draw gasps. Someone would inevitably say Ulysses, which would lead to the equally inevitable conversation about how no one should read Ulysses, which in turn would lead to the even more inevitable conversation about how no one can read Ulysses.

My point is that now that I have time to read whatever I want, I've been going back through the list of things I should have read and never did, and picking up a few gems along the way.

One of these was The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis. This book was written in 1795. "Monk" Lewis was nineteen at the time - a very pervy, rather sophisticated nineteen. This book has everything - and I mean everything:

Corrupt monks!
Demons!
Innocent virgins!
Devirginated innocents!
Rape!
Murder!
Drag kings!
Sadistic Mothers Superior!
Sexy seductresses!
Ghost nuns!
Evil nuns!
Dead moms!
Dank crypts!
Satan! Satan! Satan!
Magic books!
Magic spells!
Bandits!
Disaffected youth!
Poison!
Sex!
Bastards!
Dueling!

The plots of yesteryear really were a lot more jam-packed than we tend to like 'em today. The real highlight of this book (besides the jaw-dropping and hilarious ending) is Matilda. Arguably the main female character, Matilda is perverse, passionate, vengeful, and just wonderfully wrong on so many levels. Lewis gives her a series of motivations that seem a bit random and nutty, but then - by pulling out a single thread that has been working through the plot all along - makes it all make sense.

We need more plots - and more women - like this in novels today. I wonder if modern audiences would accept them?

16 August 2010

Goodbye, Renaissance Quarterly


...and Sixteenth Century Journal, and especially you, Proceedings of the Modern Language Association. I won't miss you at all.

I've been cleaning house. Although I normally cling to books like they're some kind of papery life raft, today I took a couple of shelves' worth of academic journals down and put them in the recycling. They filled an entire blue box and I suspect there are a few more lurking in the not-so-neat rows of my bookcases. I can now reshelve the large pile of books that I have slowly accumulated beside my bed, not to mention the numerous volumes I've tucked away horizontally on top of rows of books in my bookcases.

The decision to get rid of the flotsam and jetsam of my academic "career" is really just the latest in a series of maneuvres designed to distance me from academia. The painful part was over three years ago, when I decided I couldn't (wouldn't, shouldn't) hack it as a professor. The fun part was realizing that I could embrace my lifelong dream of writing fiction, if not for a living, then at least for life. The scary part was figuring out how to replace the income I was making from sessional teaching without falling into something that would wreck my concentration or my soul. This part? The getting rid of stuff part? Feels more like picking a scab. A little bit gross, and mildly fascinating.

In January, I started decluttering my office by throwing out the dozens upon dozens of photocopies of academic articles I'd gathered while writing my thesis. There are more of those lurking in a storage unit in my bedroom--I can't wait to ferret them out and get rid of them.

I don't know why it took me so long to recognize that I no longer wanted the journals. It was probably their neat, bland spines. They made themselves innocuous among the Harry Potters and the Sookie Stackhouses, not to mention the Joe R. Lansdale canon and the plethora of Dover and Oxford and Penguin editions of classics that were actually fun to read, and which I'll probably revisit at some point. (I'm looking at you, Père Goriot!)

But last week, I don't know--I was looking at the plant on top of the tall white bookcase that sits near the dining room window, and I just thought, "I could throw those out without a second thought." Today, I took ten minutes, and I did it.

I admit, I felt a slight twinge as I looked at those Renaissance Quarterly covers. I never wanted to collect those journals, but they came along with my Renaissance Society of America membership, which in turn was a part of my conference fees. Go to the conference, pay your dues, get some journals: that was the deal. And they always looked so rich, so full of knowledge, so replete with things with which I ought to be familiar. So long as I was tied to academia, I had to hang on to them. Otherwise, how would I understand that my knowledge base was entirely inadequate? And how would I rescue myself once I decided to turn it all around and become the academic rock star I should have been?

You can see why this didn't work out, right?

I stacked them all on the dining room table, and I started taking them out to the porch, where they could wait in their blue box for next week's garbage day. I'm not totally heartless: I picked up an issue or two, and thumbed through them, looking for some redeeming feature. And I did find some promise there: there were a couple of articles on public executions--always a topic that stirred my interest. And I did find a piece or two on disease or drama--my areas of specialty. I paused, and sighed, and I read:
This article statistically analyzes quantitative data from numerous sources in order to assess changes in marriage patterns, family structure, and rates of social mobility during the period from 1282 to 1494. During this period, three systems of social stratification coexisted — wealth, political office, and age of family — but these contending status systems were not consistent in their rankings of families.
Okay, I didn't read this exactly, but I read something very much like it. And I closed the book. (No offense to this specific author--it's only an example, man.)

The academic gig offers a kind of notoriety: you can become sort of famous within academic circles; you can work a kind of magic with ideas and dazzle an elite audience and they might applaud you for it. But especially in literature studies, you're ultimately building a house on someone else's property. You might think you're living at the top of the ivory tower, but you're really just a squatter in the land of the imagination.

Here's the thing: I've done the academic trip. I've done it until it couldn't be done any more, at least from a student perspective. I got the mother of all degrees. And I am not at all anti-education. The most valuable thing I take away, however, is the ability to read just about anything every written in the English language, and a little smidge here and there of stuff written in Latin. And what academics do--the endless analysis, the combination and recombination of other people's theories and other people's creativity--it's neat and all, but it isn't story. It won't save you. It won't help you figure out your life. It won't add value to the richness that is you.

And maybe story won't do that either--maybe fiction is ultimately fluffy and insubstantial. But it feels real to me.

I'm writing now--I'm working creatively. I'm sacrificing my time to the sable goddess of speculative fiction.

There's no room for Renaissance Quarterly on this ride.

19 July 2010

Go See This: Inception


Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.

Basically, I don't have much to say about Inception that Roger Ebert didn't say already. I'll just add that it's been a crappy summer for movies, and people, if you want to have your brain massaged, stretched, and messed with in a most delightful way, this is your chance. It's really, really nice to know there are people making films who don't think we're all dumb.

18 July 2010

Read This: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban


One of the worst parts of being a grad student in English literature was slowly coming to look upon the act of reading as a chore. When you have to read, process, and produce gobs of insight in short order, it can really crush the enjoyment factor right out of you.

One of the best parts of being a grad student was having great professors who had incredible taste in literature. One of these, a very nice man who ran a course called "Modern and Postmodern Novel," introduced me to Riddley Walker.

Now that the emotional dents caused by grad school have started to smooth themselves out, I've been going back over my bookshelf and picking up things I remember thinking were cool back in the day. I just finished re-reading Riddley Walker, and let me tell you, it's everything I remembered and more.

Riddley Walker is basically post-apocalyptic fiction meets Tom Sawyer. It's 2300 years after some kind of man-made catastrophe, probably nuclear in nature, has plunged humanity, or at least England, into a new dark ages. Riddley Walker has just turned twelve, which makes him a man by his culture's standards. Through a series of happenstances, he finds himself running away from his semi-nomadic group and heading off for adventure with a pack of wild dogs and a boy his age called "the Ardship of Cambry." Hilarity, heartbreak, explosions, and an encounter with Mr. Punch ensue.

The thing that makes Riddley Walker both challenging and fascinating to read is the language. Reading page one of this book is like cracking open The Canterbury Tales for the first time. Your brain processes it at first as "foreign language: cannot read." By the time you're done page one, you're sort of getting it, but the language continues to be surprising and amazing through the entire book.

Here's what I mean:

Where they are theyre up side down in the groun. Like youwl see a picter of your self up side down in the water theres a stoan self of your self in the groun and walking foot to foot with you. You put your foot down and theywl put ther foot up and touching yours. Walking with you every step of teh way yet youwl never see them.

Theywl stay unner the groun longs youre on top of it. Comes your time to ly down for ever then the stoan man comes to the top of the groun they think theywl stan up then. They cant do it tho. Onlyes strenth they had ben when you ben a live. Theyre lying on the groun trying to talk only theres no soun theres grean vines and leaves growing out of ther mouf....them stoans ben trying to talk only they never wil theyre jus only your earf stoans your unner walkers. Trying ot be men only cant talk. They had earf for sky wylst you had air.

My spellcheck went crazy while I was typing that.

The entire book is full of the tragedy of everything Riddley's world has lost, as well as the natural energy and hope associated with change - change that Riddley himself helps to perpetuate. It's everything that great science fiction should be: rigorously imagined, and fired with the passions of its characters. There's enough difference between Riddley's language and ours that Hoban gets to sneak in some concepts not fully imaginable to most people today, but obviously real and true in Riddley's world.


12 July 2010

Statistics Obsession

In the original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, I always loved the scene set in the amazing garden-o-candy. No, not because of "Pure Imagination." Everyone loves that song, sure. Alongside "Rainbow Connection" from the Muppet Movie, it expresses a major sentiment of my youth, rah bah bah.

I like the garden-o-candy scene because of the moment when Augustus Gloop is stuck in the uptake tube from the chocolate river. Willy Wonka looks on eagerly and says:

The suspense is terrible...I hope it lasts.*

Ripping off Oscar Wilde, of course, like all clever people do if they want to seem even more clever.

Here's the thing. I've become very caught up with Duotrope statistics.

Duotrope tells you so much about a magazine. Their average return time on manuscript submissions is among the most useful information they track. But they also list average return times on rejections and acceptances, as well as my favourite stats right now: most recent response received on a manuscript, and the date the writer originally submitted that manuscript.

The reason why I'm all caught up in these stats is that I've got two stories out right now. One of them has been out for a full three weeks longer than the most recent manuscript returned by the magazine I sent it to. And the other's been kept back a few days longer than some of the manuscripts sent in around the same time as I sent mine. Both of these markets keep the pieces they tend to accept longer than those they're rejecting. Can you see where I'm going with this?

It's likely, given how things are playing out, that both of these stories have been held back so editorial can take another look at them. I think I can be fairly certain of that, and hey, that's awesome. And maybe, just maybe, I've got a shot at getting them accepted.

I'm bugging every time I open my email. I am trying not to get my hopes up, but after a whole heck of a lot of hard writing and editing, my hopes are quite in need of getting up.

Say it with me now:

The suspense is terrible. I hope it lasts.



*This is the version I remember. It might have been some variation on this turn of phrase. I'll straighten it out the next time I watch the movie. It's been too long, anyhow.

13 May 2010

You're Not Going to Like It



Yesterday I was working on a scene in which a character has to tell another character some bad news. The exchange went something like this:

A: What about X and Y? What happened to them?
B: I can tell you that, but you're not going to like it.
A: Please, just tell me.
B: Okay. [And B goes on to tell what he knows]

I finished writing that, sat back, and thought, what the hell? That's terrible. No one says "You're not going to like it" in real life. Where did that come from?

The answer: TV.

Back in the 70s and 80s, if a TV writer needed to put characters in a dangerous situation, nine times out of ten he or she would slip some quicksand into the mix. Need to add an extra level of danger? Throw in a snake with that quicksand. It will make your upside-down rescue all that more impressive.



"You're not going to like it" is the new quicksand. It's a shorthand signal to the audience to gear up for some tension.

But like quicksand, "You're not going to like it" is rarely spotted in the wild. It's not something people say to each other.

Listen, if I'm telling you something you're not going to like, the last thing I'm going to do is flag it for you. If you're going to get mad at me, you're going to have to do it under your own power. Seriously, I've got something not nice to tell you? If it's my fault I might pretend it's okay and hope that you won't blame me. Or if it's someone else's fault, I'll drop it on you like an anvil and let you get mad if you're so inclined. Maybe I'm hoping you'll get mad. Maybe I'm telling you that thing you won't like on purpose, so that you'll be on my side and we can plan our vengeance together.

However it shakes down, I'm not going to tell you what to think.

Bottom line, "You're not going to like it" is bad dialogue. As a writer, you've got to have each character's perspective and personality in mind as you compose. This can be tricky, and it's good if you're making a character say something nasty, and it's great if you're thinking, "Oh man, A is not going to like what B's got to say." But don't make B say that. It's a poor attempt at manipulating the reader.

25 April 2010

I am not usually quite this hilarious

Dave and I went to see Kick-Ass tonight. (In a word: amazing! Run and see it now! Go!) One of the trailers was for The Expendables, of which I was not previously aware.



At the end of it I turned to Dave and said: "I didn't know they made a sequel to The Bucket List."

Can I get a rim shot?

07 April 2010

01 April 2010

Voop

My short story, "Voop", is up today at Everyday Weirdness. I could not be more proud to have scored April Fool's Day for this publication. It seems so...appropriate to the story. Thank you, Mr. Lilly, for your fabulous collection of weirdness!

22 March 2010

Palimpsest


And I would compare myself to a palimpsest; I shared the thrill of the scholar who beneath more recent script discovers, on the same paper, an infinitely more precious ancient text. What was it, this occult text? In order to read it, would I not have to erase, first, the more recent ones?


~André Gide, The Immoralist

10 March 2010

Do Not Cut Our Shrubs

Last year our elderly neighbours decided that we weren't trimming the flora on our side of the fence as savagely as they would like, and so somebody (I believe one or more of their adult children) got up on a stepladder and cut off as much as they could reach over the fence. They cut off the lilacs before they could bloom. They chopped the new and tender growth from a baby's breath bush before it could release its cascades of delicate white flowers.

I was really angry about it.

Later in the season, when my rose of sharon bushes were ripe with dozens upon dozens of flower buds, they did the same thing - chopped off each and every one before they could bloom.

I won't front. I cried when I saw the damage they had done. I was really looking forward to the bunches of purple flowers that I knew would bloom. And then all that potential was gone.

I am not in favour of neighbour wars, especially against the elderly, but this was too much. So this year, before the new growth of the shrubs could inspire my neighbours or their grown kids to whip out the clipping shears and hack saws, I decided to do an intervention.


"DO NOT CUT OUR SHRUBS: Some of them are dying because of what you did last year."

This was actually the second sign I posted. The first read, "DO NOT CUT OUR SHRUBS: You do not have our permission to reach over our fenceline."

Why a sign? So many reasons.

These people have a history of "misunderstanding" anything they do not want to hear. English is a second language for the elderly couple, but it seems to me that they totally get any communication that serves them or is neutral. I did ask very nicely last year that they put away their instruments of torture for the season, sometime between savage clipping number one and savage clipping number two. I pointed out that I would like to do any trimming myself. That request was totally ignored.

I am also fully aware of how passive aggressive and irritating signs like this can be. At the church hall where our tai chi group works out, the pastor communicates with people who rent the hall by using signs like this. "CHILDREN ARE NOT TO PLAY ON THE PIANOS" one of them reads, alongside some standard "LEAVE THE HALL LIKE YOU FOUND IT," and "DO NOT BLOCK THIS DOOR" signs. When a choir that rents the hall took to sitting on a brand new foldout table, a sign went up that said, "DO NOT SIT ON THIS TABLE! YOU ARE BREAKING IT!"

Although no one in our tai chi group had ever sat on the table, we were all upset and irritated by the sign. It's like getting yelled at by someone who can't hear you.

And then there was the handy public humiliation factor. Both of the signs I put up were clearly readable from the sidewalk that runs past my neighbours' house. Although I didn't put their names on the sign, well, anyone who shares a street with this lovely couple knows exactly how hostile they are to plant life.

I could have written a nice note and put it in their mailbox, sure. But I had a feeling that any such note would have gone unnoticed. It's too easy to claim "Oh, we didn't get that."

I wanted there to be clarity.

Sign number one went up two days ago. They took it down. We share a wall between our two attached houses - yelling was clearly audible through the wall.

I put up another sign.

More yelling.

Today, the couple's daughter showed up on my doorstep. While I am not a fan of confrontation, I am not opposed to standing my ground if necessary. She came into the conversation yelling about my lack of neighbourly attitude. She attacked my apparent lack of employment (hey, I'm employed - just grossly underpaid) and my failure to cut my front lawn "on time" (I never get to it, since they are lawnmower happy and seem to take pride in cutting my lawn for me, an aggression no doubt related to judgement about my apparent lack of employment). She cited the fact that we rent this house as evidence that somehow it's okay for them to violate the property line. She finished off by claiming that I was harrassing her parents.

Score. I told her that I would stop putting up signs when I had a guarantee from her that no one would touch my shrubs.

Amidst a large volley of accusations, she told me that now that "her mother" knows not to cut the shrubs, it won't happen again.

I am holding them to that.

Otherwise, the signs will go back up. I know now that they really don't like them.

Some notes on this incident:

It's been a while since I've had a fight with an almost complete stranger. It's weird how deeply the adrenaline penetrates into your whole system.

It's interesting to interact with people who use anger as a default response to any situation. I think from a strategic perspective that getting them angry was maybe the only way to get them to notice what I was trying to say. Polite requests certainly had no impact at all.

When people perceive that blame might fall on their shoulders, they will lie and scapegoat anyone they can. When it came down to it, the daughter of this couple blamed her mother - who is eighty and all of four feet tall - for cutting the shrubs. Somehow I don't think she got up on a ladder and used a hacksaw to cut through all four inches of living lilac trunk, but you know, whatever.

Lawn/yard/plant nazis are crazy in many different ways. This is the same family that actively tried to kill an old growth maple on their property. Fortunately they didn't succeed.

What has been cut can grow back.

05 March 2010

When I think I'm king, I just begin

Oh, Kate Bush. You barely make sense and yet you speak to me.



I've been listening to The Dreaming again. It's really wonderful. In the aftermath of February, which frankly sucked, I'm feeling the need for a serious infusion of eccentricity.

I always wonder how Kate Bush managed to break through. She's so amazingly weird, and part of that weirdness is the way her lyrics seem to go straight into my brainpan and massage my creative centre. How could this gorgeous genius be allowed to circulate her strangeness to the general public? Don't the authorities know this kind of thing can result in mass happiness and outbreaks of wild creativity?

Things get even more nuts when you look at her videos. She's a highly disciplined dancer, and everything she's got ends up getting channeled into this wild imagery that's both unexpected and iconic. Dunce caps and minotaurs, everybody!

20 February 2010

Something Smart



I once knew a guy who was wise in many ways. He said something incredibly brilliant to me during one of many long and fraught philosophical discussions.

"Your oldest friends are not the best representation of who you are. They are a product of who you were when you met them. You've changed, you're a different person now. You can't possibly be the same as you were so many years ago when you thought that forming those attachments was a good idea. Your most recent friends, they're the ones who represent who you are now."

I'm paraphrasing, of course. It was probably much more gorgeously phrased at the time.

True? Maybe not. Fascinating? Absolutely.

(Going straight from this post and into my novel? Probably!)

14 February 2010

Invisible Runner

Go and try Invisible Runner by David Ferriz. An aesthetically gorgeous game with a here-and-gone-again protagonist.

12 February 2010

Winter

Unlike practically everywhere else in North America, winter has been gentle and kind to Southern Ontario. We've seen almost no snow; there have been a few bitter days but not too many in a row; we've had our fair share of sun.

Sometime just before Christmas, I was out in the woods with the dog. There was a light dusting of snow on the ground. We had just passed the winter solstice. There was sun sparkling on the snow. The sky was blue. I thought about how great it would be to take some photos.

Then the snow melted and the woods were a pleasant but boring brown colour for a long time.

Finally this week we got a few inches of the white stuff. We are just past midwinter / Imbolc / Candlemas / Groundhog day (yes, these holidays all occur on the same day!). In other words, we're on the downhill slope toward spring. So before there's a giant thaw and we get into some serious growing and sprouting, I bring you my midwinter photo essay (2010 edition), starring a bunch of trees and Dizzy the Boston terrier.

These were taken between 2:30pm and 4pm. I just love how even though it's relatively early in the afternoon, the sun makes long shadows all over the place.



Any Boston terrier will tell you that a walk just isn't meaningful without a really big stick to chew on.



Of course you must practice proper chewing technique at all times.



Make sure you spit out any wood chips as you go. You don't want to know what happens if you swallow them.



Proper chewing technique = pure bliss.



These trees are perched on the edge of a deep gorge. A waterfall created it over time. It's not much to look at right now because it's covered in snow, but the trees do look lovely against the blue sky.



I just love the way the sun is backlighting this tree and shrubs so that it looks like the tree is radiating light.



Lots of people use these woods all year round, so the path is well stamped for us.



This used to be an apple orchard. The trees have grown pretty wild, but they still produce apples. Hawthornes have grown in amongst the apples.



You have to search around a bit but there is the occasional touch of green in the woods. This moss is growing on a hawthorne tree.



You can tell by the spikes!



If you take too many pictures, Dizzy gets a little bit impatient.



Now we're out of the old apple orchard and heading into the wild forest.



There are a lot of huge old oak trees growing up on this hill. They always seem to me to be having a conference.



My favourite oak.



If you stand at the base and look up, you can see how imposing this tree is.



Some kind of large gall or growth has formed partway up this tree's trunk. It's almost perfectly spherical. I didn't notice it until after the leaves fell, so I'm not sure if the tree is still living.



There's a secret stream bed under all this snow. In a couple of months, water will be rushing through here.



At this point in the walk, the wind was blowing through the upper branches of the trees and making some pretty loud squeaking and squealing sounds. Dizzy sensed a disturbance in the force.



More noises.



What is it?



There are a few different types of woodpeckers in these woods. I once even saw a pileated woodpecker. Compared to the sparrows and chickadees that I usually see, it was huge! It seemed like a pterodactyl. Pileateds leave this kind of large oval hole when they drill into trees looking for food.



When you leave the woods, it's important to take a souvenir with you!



In the field, I found these tiny footprints. Each print was about the size of my thumbnail. Mouse? Rat? Some other hopping rodent with a skinny tail?



His future's so bright, he ought to wear shades.



Next we entered the bird garden. An ornithologist who I ran into on a walk told me that birds created this scrubby brush area by defecating here and leaving seeds behind. Almost all of the bushes that grow here bear some kind of fruit. This area has an amazing concentration of this kind of plant, and is next to an open field where there is very little of this kind of growth. I guess the birds knew what they were doing! You can find all kinds of different birds in here all winter long.



The path home awaits!



Very, very patiently.



Sort of patiently.



The sumac is beginning to look a little worn around the edges. I think the birds have been eating the sumac berries because I'm finding them scattered on the ground around the bushes. My friend Wendy tells me that sumac is edible for humans, too. You can nibble on it while you're on the trail if you rub off the tiny hairs that grow on it. You can also crush it, soak it in water, strain out the berries, and enjoy a drink that tastes a little like pink lemonade.



The white spots in this picture are gulls. Although there was no breeze to speak of close to the ground, there was clearly a lot of wind activity high up in the sky, because this large group of gulls were playing around in the sky. As I watched they flew higher and higher, appearing only as tiny dots like the ones you see here. They seemed to be swirled around by the wind, changing their positions and configurations with amazing speed.



Homeward bound.



Don't forget your stick!



Happy second half of winter, everyone!

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