Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Idea Shelf

This is a LOT what it looks like in my head.
Cluttered and unordered.
Like a lot of people (and more than just a few writers) I grew up reading constantly as a kid. Always had a book in my hand, and another nearby. One of the best memories I have of the house my father built for us was the built-in bookshelf in my walk-in closet. I tried to fill it with all the books I could get my hands on and then comics and magazines. It also contained a tackle box and my clarinet at one point.

I never did fill it up.

Now I've got shelves and shelves and shelves of books. I've even got shelves dedicated to books I haven't read yet. I've got boxes and boxes of comics, too. Quite a few less than seven or eight years ago because I had to divest myself of them and replaced several series with collections that now sit on two nearly full bookcases.

I went through a period about fifteen years ago when I didn't read much. Made excuses that I didn't "have time" for it. I still collected books but read mostly comics because of their brevity and episodic nature. It was, of course, bullshit. Looking back on that period I was wrapped up in a lot of things that commanded my attention and I willingly put books down to focus on them. In retrospect, I'm never going to make up for all the books I never read.

Nowadays when that happens, when I tend to read only comics for a while, it's because I'm writing and I don't want to be influenced in my storytelling or because I'm editing and don't want to be influenced by another author's voice. It's kind of a pain in the ass. Here's an explanation:

I came up when TV stations were outnumbered by radio stations; cable was not ubiquitous and MTV was barely developed; video games were far more numerous in arcades than in my friends' homes; we watched videos on a seemingly endless loop on two or three screens in the arcades, too. There were far fewer distractions for me then than now and there's something to be said for that. I saw a factoid recently that said college students heading for graduation have spent less than five thousand hours reading books and more than twenty thousand hours consuming electronic media (TV, movies, video games, etc...). That seems all kinds of out of whack to me.

I could spend a lot more time reading than I do but reading requires concentration that's really hard to come by and I admit that I'm often easily distracted. (What? Deadwood's on? Cool. And then 2010 is on after that? Even better!)

Writing requires a lot of brain muscles. A storyteller has to find the creative bits that lubricate those writing muscles and the creative bits like to absorb things indiscriminately and that's my problem.

I am influenced by everything I read: a plot point, the idea behind it and even the execution of the idea. I'm still stumbling around in the dark trying to find my own particular voice but I can at least recognize when I'm aping someone else. When I'm writing a zero draft I don't worry too much about that because I know it'll get fixed in each revision as I go along. But I do worry while I'm revising/editing. That's where I can get lost in trying to tell a good story and inadvertently emulate whichever book I may be reading.

That's when I usually go back to comics. I'm very confident in how I approach dialogue and that's what comics tend to mostly be and a lot less heavy on narration and descriptive phrases. What I struggle with is the scene descriptions and character development and that's what I admire most in other writers. It's what I tend to steal from them. (Every writer does this so I'm not giving away any trade secrets.)

The bookshelf in my head is where the Ideas come from. I'm filling it up again by reading a bunch of things, not just comics and not just fiction. I've taken the time to read (in the last five years or so) beyond my favorite genre and even into non-fiction.

Look, I'm rambling, kind of all over the place. It's a process. What I'm getting at is that while some writers can read a lot when they're writing, I have to be pretty choosy. I've got three or four books that I'm working on while I'm trying to finish the first round of revisions on The Cold Distance. It's difficult and that's part of why I'm rambling. I'm trying to figure out how to balance these things.

I suspect that this is something that all writers go through, innit? I'm looking for suggestions, folks. Leave any you may have in the comments section, will you?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Teh Future Iz Hear

Stock photo of the old phone. R.I.P.
I loved you more than the Blackberry.
This is a post about my history with cell phones. Feel free to skip it if you like. I'll get back to things about writing next time.

I like to hold on to my phones until they DIE. The old phone was hobbling along for the last three weeks or so but really had been on life support for about six months. It was my third smartphone, the Google G1 and I was very, very happy with it.
My first cellphone was a Blackberry and it died a horrible death by being smashed in my pocket as I closed a car door one evening. I was dismayed because I'd paid a truckload of cash for it and it was pretty damn cool. For the time. We're talking early 2000s here. Anyway, it did everything I wanted it to do and I paid good money to my carrier to have that unlimited access that's so hard to get for a reasonable price these days. Anyway, I killed it and I was sad and I went home and trolled eBay for a replacement.

The new phone has TWO screens.
I am  so far in the future  I'll
Neuromancer all of you.
The next phone was a Treo because Warren Ellis had one and was doing interesting things with his like attaching it via Bluetooth to a portable keyboard and writing stories on it. Well sign me up, Slappy, that's the phone I want. Found one for a reasonable price or at least one that was comparable to what I paid for the Blackberry. It arrived in the mail and I got to work. I found the portable keyboard and when I traveled I was able to write long emails to my wife and my parents. I also was able to write some things that translated to the home computer and Word.

I liked the Treo. I did. It was handy and did everything I wanted. I could surf the 'net, send messages and take phone calls (the one thing that seems to be an afterthought on almost any new phone nowadays). It was handy though its screen was tiny by comparison to the Blackberry. Still I was getting spoiled by having full keyboards.

Anyway, it was a good phone and lasted about three years. It died by inches, tire with a slow leak. Various functions stopped and started and then stopped completely. It was time to look for a new phone.

Set the alarm for crunchies. Don't forget.
The iPhone was out and still new. Maybe second generation was coming at the time and boy was it a sexy machine. I was happy with my carrier and I didn't want to change. So I went to the store and found the Google G1 and I liked it. They told me the G2 was coming soon but I couldn't wait for it. So I knew I was getting into a phone that was going to be outdated as soon as I signed the credit card receipt. This was the first phone I bought that I touched before I paid for it and I was glad of it. It did everything I wanted and was very comparable to the Apple product. I thought I'd be able to use it like an iPod.

(If you know me at all, you know I'm an Apple guy. Despite that, I don't have an iPhone or an iPad. Just couldn't justify the cost of the iPhone and still can't.)

This one did even more than the other two put together. I could show videos to my wife while we waited. I could do WAY more than I ever really needed. I could acquire apps that did things I could only do on my computer before. I was in love with a phone. Yeah, I know. Shut up.

Recently it started doing things like shutting off after only a minute or so of use. Apps had died and there hadn't been a firmware update in a looooong time. Finally when I realized I couldn't really use the phone any more for anything it was time to go back to the store.

I had a great experience with the guy who helped me. He treated me like I was a person and not an old guy who had a preference for full keyboards. He showed me the best options he had for something that was very similar to the phone I liked and he was respectful. All in all, this transition to a new phone has been fairly painless.

This is one less thing that I have to worry about now and I can get back to writing.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Talk About Building Characters


One of my favorite recurring themes/jokes from Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes was when Dad told Calvin that something built character. Calvin always grumbled that he had enough character, thank you very much, and that Dad was just being cheap.

This week at the Confabulator Cafe, we've been talking about building characters and how each of us does it. My entry is up now and I encourage you to head over there and see what I said about it. Here's a sample:

I tell you that story to tell you this: there’s no secret to developing characters. Anyone can do it. Some writers run their people through a kind of boot camp by interviewing them and knowing all sorts of details that may or may not be revealed in the course of a story. Others take a more organic approach and allow plot to reveal character through action. In the business we call this ‘pantsing’ for ‘flying by the seat of my pants’.
I fall somewhere in the middle. I need to know more than just a little bit about my characters in order to write about them and often their actions determine the path of the plot. This happens when I ask the question: “What would (character name) do in this situation?” If the answer isn’t dramatic enough, I change the situation to suit the character. The one thing I need to know is whether the character will zig or zag in a given situation.

 I really think that's true: there is no secret to developing characters. You either know how to do it or you don't and you figure it out. And by figuring it out I mean that you have to ask questions. A writer who doesn't ask questions is lazy and is not going to be successful. As I've said a dozen times before, writing is Work and one must do the work in order to get the pay day. Go on over and read the full post. Then check out what the others are saying. The best thing about group blogs is that there's always something to learn from at least one person and I learn something every week.

See you on Monday. (Oh and by the way, you can now find a summary of all the stuff I've ever put out for public consumption on the new Titles page up at the top of the blog.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Back in the Saddle

Revise from DC/Vertigo's FABLES
So I took most of February off instead of trying to kill myself with all the things that were going on. Here's a quick breakdown:


  • I've turned in a final draft of a story that I began a loooooong time ago and thought would never be finished. It's been through (I think) eight revisions or so and it's finally ready and waiting for its cover before it's released into the wild. I can give you a hint that it will be available for both the Kindle and the Nook when it goes out. Other than that, I think I'm supposed to wait for the official announcement. 
  • Editing/Revisions on The Cold Distance are going well but are taking longer than I thought they would. As always, I have little patience for revisions, especially in light of the seemingly never-ending battle with the above-mentioned book. I've learned so much over the last couple of years that I can't set Distance aside. This book means a lot to me and when the revisions are done, I'll go for another round of readers (already have three trusted pairs of eyes waiting for it) and then we'll begin the odyssey of putting it into play.
  • Nearly done with the first draft of another story, too that has to get through some eyes and revisions before it goes off to the editor. It's an SF adventure story, too, and I'm pretty sure it'll go quickly once the initial revisions are done.
I didn't intend this post to be about revising, but that's an essential part of writing, isn't it? It's the thing that  I think makes writers the craziest. It's the part where we have to look at our darlings and be honest with them, and ourselves, that they're not looking as good as they need to. Our characters and stories are our babies and we want everyone else to see what we see in them, so it's harder than anyone might think.

Look, revising a story is harder than writing the damn thing in the first place. Anyone who's gone back to look at something they've written is often horrified that he thought it was anything like approaching good. That's often when we writers think 'oh hell, no one's ever going to want to read this, it's complete crap'. Well, actually we use a lot stronger language than that, but you get the idea.

The process of change is the same no matter what one is trying to accomplish: whether it be the economy, the basic ideas of what people think or making a story better. Everyone who tries to effect change is working hard at it and often we're never satisfied. It's a matter of taste. And that, ladies and gentlemen, leads me to share this with you (which came from here):


And with that, I leave you until next time, dear readers. I'm busy fighting my way through the crippling doubt and fear. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Pointers

I'll be back on Wednesday. All is well, the world didn't end and I have thoughts that I'm going to share with you. I just needed a teensy break to get my head around a few things. I appreciate you all being patient.

In the meantime, the site/post that this picture came from (via a Google image search) is interesting. You should read it here. You should also, real quick, check out this post from my good friend R.L. Naquin (whose book will drop this summer and you will enjoy it because it's all kinds of nutty fun). Not just for the meme that's already run it's course on Facebook and elsewhere, but because she and I share the same sensibility about trends.

Also, don't forget to visit my compatriots at The Confabulator Cafe. There's a lot of good writing going on over there.

Finally, the question I have to ask is how many people are reading here? I've got an idea from the poll where I asked how you accessed my inane ramblings, but if I could get a head count...

See you Wednesday with a real post.

Friday, February 17, 2012

New On the Menu

Hot coffee and stimulation conversation.
Over at the Confabulator Cafe this week we've been sharing our thoughts on self-publishing. My post is up now and I encourage you to read not only my experiences with the field, but to explore the thoughts of all my good friends there. It's a volatile subject and worthy of debate, which is why we saved it for after we really got our feet wet and ball rolling over there.

On a personal note, I'm going to take another week or so off here from blogging regularly, but will return with Mondays and Wednesdays before the end of the month. I know you've all missed having me around here, but I needed the break. I'm still working on revisions for The Cold Distance, but that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about other things. And reading.

I'll see you all here soon, but in the meantime, check out the Cafe. There's some top-notch ideas in there.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Blogging the Cafe

My people are cool. Check 'em out.
Coming up for air long enough to point you to the Confabulator Cafe, the group of writers (very talented and soon-to-be-published writers) I'm working with locally and online. All the posts this week have been about how each of us writes scenes. My usual Friday entry is up and ready for you all to peruse at your leisure and I highly encourage you to read all the posts. There are some real insights to be discovered there and I learn something every week from my friends and fellow-crazies.

So pull up a chair, grab a cuppa and remember that bow ties are cool. And fezzes. Fezzes are cool. Unless you're wearing Stetsons now. Then Stetsons are cool.

All right. Off to the day job then back to the grind of revisions. I hope that I'll be able to announce something that I've been working on for what seems forever here pretty soon. I promise you'll be the first to know when I can tell you.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Light and Noise Discipline

By the time you read this, I'll be in the throes of editing The Cold Distance. I work a few posts ahead so that I can blog in what's laughingly referred to as 'spare time' (and I have a couple of stories about Spare Time that I'll write one of these days) and keep up with my writing.

My bible for a while.
So I'm blogging this to tell you that posting my be erratic for a while here. You may just get pictures, or glimpses of what I'm researching further to make the novel better. I've had enough time away from it (more than a month) and I've read a lot of other NaNo works in between that I can be dispassionate enough to go in and hack away at my darling. I've already got a list of scenes that need to be added and changed, and I know there will be a couple that will have to go so if you hear wailing and moaning on the levee, you'll know it's me and not the Hound of the Baskervilles.

The red pen is my friend and I have some spectacular notes and my copy of Browne & King. My goal is to have the book in a readable 'first' draft by the end of February. I think that's realistic and achievable. I see some of you nodding your heads sagely and saying "Sure it is, Jason..."

Well, it is. I believe in this book. It's best thing I've written and I know how to make it better. I'm not giving up, I'm not quitting. I'm just going to be quieter than usual for a while. Of course I'll still be up and running at The Confabulator Cafe every Friday and Sunday, so make sure you stop there and read not just me, but all the other fabulous writers I'm lucky enough to call my friends. You're going to see big things from us as a group and individuals.

My future is a little daunting, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. More in dribs and drabs over the coming weeks. You'll be among the first to know when I'm ready to rejoin the blogosphere on a regular basis here.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Determination

Never give up, no matter what. NO MATTER WHAT.
Image from Disny/Pixar's UP. They own the rights.
I think I've said this before, but I won't ever give up on the idea of me being a storyteller. I've tried musician/rock star and artist before settling on wanting to be a writer and this feels like a much better fit for me.

This past fall was a watershed moment for me. I realized that what was missing from being a storyteller was having a group around me that encouraged me without pandering. I'm not a bad writer and I'm getting better at it, so this twelve year journey hasn't been in vain. I suppose I should explain a little, eh?

Twelve years is relative. Back in 1999 and 2000 I was making mini comics. Writing, drawing, lettering, photocopying, stapling, folding, mailing... Basically I was a one-man production team working on a monthly deadline for a year and a half. I produced ten pages a month, covers and did everything I could to get noticed for my storytelling.

I did get noticed and I made several friends who've been super supportive and encouraging, and I believe I've related that story here or elsewhere and anyway it's tedious. What happened, after ending up with over 200 pages of comics written and drawn, was that I was disenchanted. I wasn't going to get into comics with my work (my drawing skills lacked) and I couldn't afford to buy an artist to produce quality pages.

So I turned to writing prose. Not right away, but I got there because there's something in me that won't let me quit. The contacts I made in comics kept encouraging me, waiting for me to realize that I had stories to tell and that there would be a reckoning.

Before that happened, there was decently long period where I didn't tell any stories. I was done making comics and I hadn't decided to write prose yet. I wasn't making music any more and I felt like all my art sucked (and it did). I was the most unhappy bastard you'd ever run into. I focused on doing my day job (which I'm pretty good at) but I wasn't being creative. I fooled myself into thinking I was happy not being creative, but I wasn't.

Because the fires inside weren't being stoked. What I'm getting at is over the twelve years that I've been seriously pursuing being a storyteller/writer, I've been up and I've been down and I've been so down you wouldn't believe it. I've been so up at times that I could taste the rain in the clouds before it fell and I could see the molten core of the sun. My real revelation came when I realized that it was all part of the process: the Ups, the Downs and everything in between.

So if you're one of those creative types who's down on themselves, I want you to pay attention: get over it and keep going. This is the tough love speech no one else is going to give you. You can give up if you want to but that's a trap. You won't be happy in the long run. You'll have nightmares if you try to deny that part of you needs to be nourished and nurtured by being creative. Maybe not the kind that are obvious, but they'll be there nonetheless and they'll haunt you.

My advice is that you should do what makes you happy: write, draw, play music, whatever. But don't do it for money or recognition. Do it because it makes you happy.

Then, when you're happy doing what you do, surround yourself with others who like to do the same things. That's what's happened to me and if you let it happen to you, you'll have found your bliss.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Story's in the Teller

At the risk of sounding TOO much like Woody Allen's version of Ernest Hemingway, something has occurred to me: All stories are worth being told. It's up to the writer to decide whether or not the story is right for them to tell it.

Every story that can be told reveals something about the human condition whether good, bad, indifferent or just amusing or puzzling. There's no such thing as a bad story, right? Only a story told badly. How many versions of Homer's The Odyssey are there? How many Boy Meets Girl? How many Man Versus Nature?

Let's take Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde as a for instance. Robert Louis Stevenson's classic is just that: Classic. It's been told so well that it begs to be retold and retold and retold. (This isn't a retraction of my post about remaking films. This is different. I promise.) How many versions of man's confrontation with his dark side can you count up? There's a Scooby Doo version. Film versions. Radio versions. TV versions. A musical. What's notable is that most of these adaptations choose to ignore the twist ending that makes the book a classic. We'll come back to that.

Then there are the stories that are based on the Jekyll & Hyde mythology. I would class Stephen King's The Dark Half as a Jekyll & Hyde story. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby launched the modern Marvel Comics Universe on the broad back of the Hulk and almost every other comic book creator has gone back to the Jekyll & Hyde well to mine something new when they take the character over. Alan Moore, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (please ignore the awful film and read the comics), made Hyde more like the Hulk than anything else.

So what is it about the Jekyll & Hyde story that attracts so many people to it? Over 123 films made of the tale tell us that the fascination is likely about people losing control. Or maybe it's about morals. Or maybe it's about the duality of good and evil within each of us. Pick your poison.

What most often gets lost in the adaptations and retellings is that Hyde wasn't as ugly, physically, as he's now portrayed. It was Hyde's presence that caused revulsion in people, not his appearance. Just him being in the room with someone made them uneasy. There's no need to make Hyde, when he's used in other stories, a huge, hulking creature. Hyde is a man. A monstrous one, yes, but a man. Let's not forget that part.

The other thing that gets lost is the mystery of who Hyde is. Is he Jekyll? Is it someone else? We all know the answer now, but that's the way Stevenson told it. He wanted the reader to think about duality in Victorian England. It wouldn't hurt us to think about it now, either, for all of that.

All this to say that Stevenson told a wonderful story that inspired others to rip off or riff on. That story told by others is somehow less than what it should be. There are some that come close and Lee and Kirby's Hulk has a place in my heart that's a close second to Stevenson's.  As a writer, I've been searching for my own story and I think I've finally found it. I'm into revisions on it now and I'm excited to see it through. I doubt my story will have the same impact as Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, but it's mine. I'm the right person to tell this story at this time and no one can take that away from me.