I find myself stopping at points this morning, and just letting out deep sighs. There are passings and there are passings, you know? For me, and I assume many others, the loss of David Bowie has hit very hard.
It’s a strange sense I have, this thing with Bowie.
I loved his work. It’s widely varied and sometimes quite strange, but it’s unique and special. It catches my brain. When something by David Bowie comes on the radio, you never have to ask who it is, you know? It’s Bowie. Pure and simple. David Bowie was the only David Bowie there was, and you could not miss him even if you didn’t set eyes on him.
Not that you could miss him if you saw him, either. The man was freaking beautiful.
Startlingly. Fascinatingly. Freaking beautiful.
When I was a young guy, I didn’t get him, of course. He was just weird, you know? Iggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars? Holy moley, eh? What the hell is that? I hope you can give me a break, though, because I was eleven when that came out, and as I was growing up my mid-western American environment wasn’t exactly conducive to the idea that a sexually androgynous weirdo from outer space was supposed to be cool (or even vaguely acceptable, for that matter).
It didn’t take long, though, to separate the truth from the … uh … preconceived biases.
All you had to do was actually listen to him. And watch him. David Bowie meant something, and only a purposefully tone-deaf idiot could miss it.
Read that clause: David Bowie meant something.
When we lose a public figure, an actor, or a politician, or a musician, we lose something special. These people often carry memories with them—good or bad, these people make a difference to us by their actions and their creations. For me, I’ve come to thinking that this is the ultimate definition of a life’s purpose. Every person is valuable, but your purpose, your reason for living, lies in what you do or what you create rather than in something intrinsic to your mere existence. I think that’s the case for all of us, but some of us—the most public of us—work on a canvas that is just a bit bigger than the rest.
Public figures mold the world by their actions and creations. Where we mold maybe ten people, or maybe a hundred, or even (if we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and a huge spoonful of hubris) a thousand people, public figures can touch and change millions. David Bowie was no different there. For over fifty years, his work changed the lives of people around the world. My guess is that his art will continue to touch people for years and years.
But, to me, Bowie was that rare person who was even bigger than that.
By this I mean that the mere fact that there was a David Bowie walking on the planet made a difference. Standing there unapologetic in his moment of time, being who he was without spiteful intent but just because he was going to be it and to hell with the rest, making art—not just playing music, not just making a great time, not just entertaining—making art every time he stepped into a project, forcing you to accept him as he was, making you look at yourself in different ways merely by his presence. The overall collective of images and expressions that made up David Bowie meant something merely by existing. Do your thing, his existence said. Just do your thing and let everything else sod off and you’ll be fine.
As my good friend and collaborator John Bodin said, this is a good way to ring in the New Year. Tangent Online has released their recommended reading list for the year, and four stories I’m associated with have made the cut—specifically including “Ghost of a Chance” our novelette published in this year’s edition of Five Days in May.
If you follow the link, you’ll also find an interesting overview of the Sad Puppy controversy, and some tenuously positive notes about how it may proceed in the future.
This makes me very happy. Scanning down the list is particularly cool because there are so many great names in there. It is truly an honor to be nominated, and if I ever get so blasé about being on such a list please just shoot me and put me out of my misery. [grin]
The other works of mine on the list are all short stories:
“Tumbling Dice” – Analog
“Daily Teds” – Analog
“The Colossal Death Ray” – Galaxy’s Edge
With this kind of kick-off, I can’t wait to see what the rest of 2016 has in store!
I found this 4-minute film a few days back, but just got around to looking at it. As we move through the holiday season (here in the west, anyway) and into that period where we may just maybe be thinking about things like making resolutions that will help us become better people or maybe just use our time better, I thought you might find it helpful.
Useful in some way.
Or maybe just a comfortable way to spend 4 minutes.
(1) How susceptible to bullshit are you? And …
(2) What can you do about it?
The answer to number 1, it turns out is that we are all bullshit-susceptible to some level. This is probably no surprise. We are human beings, so we come complete with our own sets of biases and preferences, and our basic desire not to have to think too hard about things unless we are forced to. This is valuable to know and agree with, because it means that 100% of people reading this can benefit from the answer to question #2.
All right, I have to admit that I’m going to be a sucker for just about any study that both discusses and actually defines bullshit. (I suppose this means I may be susceptible to bullshit about bullshit). Regardless, the definition that the study used was:
Bullshit:statements that are meant to imply deep meaning but are actually vacuous.
I can buy that. It sounds good, at least. Doesn’t it?
Anyway, it turns out that, when presented a series of statements that are randomly created but sound profound, some of us are more likely to think they have a deep meaning than others.
If you want to learn more about how susceptible you might be, I suggest you read the article and the paper. It will take valuable time away from your normal internet skimming, but it’s worth it. Otherwise, you could skip it. Since we’re all susceptible anyway, you could say “screw that, just tell me what should I do?”
It turns out the answers are pretty self-evident. Here is the money shot from the article in question:
Based on the preliminary research we have conducted so far, two general remedies for being overly receptive to bullshit are to receive more education—especially about what constitutes a good argument and evidence—and to more frequently engage in reflective critical thinking.
Other things they suggest, and I wholeheartedly agree with:
Stop spreading articles that lack reasoned, evidence-based arguments.
Respond to others in ways that encourage reflective thinking.
Work to fight our own biases and instinctual reactions. Think twice before buying something. Or, what the heck, think three times.
Having been a fan of George Carlin, of course, I’m now feeling the great need to post a few of his bits on the subject. So, what the heck, eh? Have fun … and, if it turns out you’re not a Carlin kind of guy, well … don’t worry, it’s probably all bullshit, anyway.
Several friends of mine have made recent comments on Donald Trump, and I’ve had some thoughts on him in little bits and blurbs. I mean, how can you not, right? Right? The Donald is everywhere, doubling down and tripling down, and then quadrupling down over and over again. It’s almost like he’s just making this stuff up as he goes.
It got me wondering: love him of leave him, do you think Donald Trump knows he’s actually running for president? I am not joking. I mean the question seriously. Donald Trump has always been about making the mere idea of being Donald Trump over-grand, so the idea of running for president itself seems great in that light. Make speeches, pound chest a little, flash the hair, then retreat back to The Apprentice and run another business out of business.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
He’s done it before, after all. It’s great to be Donald.
I used to chuckle about this idea a few months back, but I’m actually starting to wonder about it now. Does Donald Trump actually know what he’s doing? What are the chances that he thinks that the whole goal is just to win the election? Period. Does he know this is not a reality show? Does he understand that after the public eventually says “You’re Fired” he has to go home and once again make it Grand to be The Donald? Or worse, does he understand that in the absolutely horrifying (*) chance that the public says “You’re Hired!” then he actually has to govern? I mean. You know, make real decisions? Influence real lives?
Does Donald Trump understand that Gary Busey is probably not going to be an acceptable cabinet member? That he’s probably not going to be able to make the Oval Office into the Board Room (technically, I suppose he could actually make this one happen, but go with me there)? Does he understand that governing means something more than looking over at Ivanka. Eric, or Donald, Jr. and having them shake their woeful heads and say “It was a tough decision, but you made the right choice?”
What are the chances that he thinks the game actually ends in November 2016?
Okay. Yes. I’m stretching the truth here just a little. I do actually think that Donald Trump is, at some literal level of existence, aware that the world will not come to an end in November of 2016, and that some TV guy will not suddenly pull the plug and cancel the show that is his life at that point, thereby allowing him to move on to the next performance. I know that he understands there is a job to do at the end.
But the concept still stands.
In no way do I believe that Donald Trump actually wants to spend time in the Oval Office, yet I also fully believe that Donald Trump wants to win—because (from my little neck of the woods) that’s how he’s lived his life. Everything is a game to win. A game, yes I do mean that—but a serious game. I use the word “game” as in Game of Thrones rather than as in Aggravation.
I am a writer, though, and in that light, when I look at Donald Trump and try to imagine how I would write him, I can work up a bit of sympathy for him. If it is true that he wants to win, but doesn’t really want to do the job, that makes for a terribly interesting internal conflict, full of internal angst and hypocrisy. It would make a helluva story with a touch of the anti-hero in it that could give it a certain coarseness that could give the movie version a little Oscar buzz.
Oscar buzz …
Now, there’s a concept that The Donald could sink his teeth into.
* – I am not a great follower of all things political. I watch it more as a sport than anything else, though I do have my opinions. I have voted Democratic. I have voted Republican. I have voted Libertarian. But in all my years, I don’t think I’ve ever used the term “horrifying” for any political candidate, ever … despite the fact that there have been a lot of pretty dicey people running for office during my lifetime. When I think of a Trump administration, I admit that I get extremely interested in the “what if” aspect of it. I would be insanely interested to actually know what would happen if Donald Trump was president. But in the real world in which I live, I can see nothing but total disaster in that path. So, yes, I use “horrifying” in a way that I’m comfortable with.
I am struggling with things going on today in ways that I haven’t struggled before. As a result, I’m coming to think this may be one of the most dangerous moments for America and the world as a whole that has existed during the time that I have lived. Things are rumbling all around us, shifting like gigantic tectonic plates in predictably unpredictable ways. And as I look at them, I can’t help but see that all these rumblings are related, some in ways that are distant and indirect, others in ways that are so glaringly obvious that it takes willful oblivion to miss them. I suggest here that these rumblings are pre-shock warnings that add up to a social earthquake that may well register 8+ on the Richter scale.
Of course, we’ve had these moments before. All countries that last a long time do.
It took a social earthquake to create the country, after all. The following 80 years were echoes of that process, little aftershocks during which we “settled” the country (developed the foundation of our identity, and … uh … mostly removed the indigenous people). Then came the quake that was the Civil War, which was the result of another huge change in the culture of the country. After that struggle, it was no longer legal to outwardly own another person, but that didn’t change to core of the problem, so that issue would, of course, rise again. Industrialization of the country brought a new shift—away from the individual and toward the corporate. One depression and two World Wars later, the concept of how work was to be done was at the core of another huge cultural and economic shift that brought us unions and put social programs into the heart of what it meant to govern a country of our size.
The egregious failures of the reconstruction became too obvious to ignore in the 40s and 50s, and by the 60s the country was torn by a stupid war (the first of a very long string of arguably stupid wars … though if I include Korea, it was the second). The combination of Civil Rights leaders, Nixon, Watergate, and the kids of the sixties created another change in the core of the country.
I haven’t even touched on deeply feminist things like women’s suffrage, the ERA, or abortion rights—all of which either added to other social shifts or created their own.
Against this backdrop, I would argue that until “now,” the past 30-40 years have been relatively quiet—at least they have been quiet if you weren’t paying too much attention. The US “won” the Cold War and was the only major power left around the globe. We kind of had it our way, you know? Politicians cut our taxes. The internet boom swelled the economy. We fed on the early days of globalization (and the top didn’t just feed, they enjoyed a total slop-fest).
But now we’ve come to 2015, and a lot of the change that was simmering along under the surface is bubbling up. This is how problems are in the real world. When you leave them fester, they come back harder than they would have been had you dealt with them earlier.
Here are a bunch of things happening, in no particular order:
“The state” is policing its poor into perpetual poverty. This is really nothing new, but it’s now so heavily intertwined in the laws of our country that it’s hard see as anything but state-sanctioned classism.
In an associated area, we have lost a 40-year War on Drugs. The social cost of this loss has been humongous. This was predictable, of course, and it was predicted. But our politicians needed to be seen as tough on drugs and tough on crime more than they needed to do the best thing.
A guerilla faction in the Middle East has found the exact recipe for success against the West. As a result countries are falling over themselves to be the next to bomb the un-bombable. Which is exactly what this faction WANTS them to do.
Unfortunately though, we as a society are still not ready to take the kind of steps it takes to defeat the ISIS/Daesh/whatever kinds of factions that are doing this. All we know to do is bomb and attack. Those are our only tools, and so we use them. Then we are shocked and amazed when they (1) don’t work, and (2) make the problem bigger. (For you writers out there, it’s the ultimate world version of Try/Fail, Things Get Worse.)
In a related area, white American is going through a huge transition in which its working class is losing the power of ethnic privilege. I’ve always thought this would take some considerable time, but I recently saw an article that reported white Christians now comprise less than 50% of the country, so maybe it won’t take as long as I think. Regardless, it is my experience that groups of people in any environment do not give up power well. This one fact is probably the root of much more of today’s social discord than any Caucasian (of which I am, of course, one) wants to admit.
Similarly, as the female culture makes true progress in all areas of society, specifically in the workplace—and therefore as an economic force, the male culture is being asked to fundamentally change the concept of what it means to be a man. Many of us are not equipped to handle this today. To those men least equipped this feels like a demotion and a loss of power (which it technically is). As I said above, it is my experience that groups of people as a whole do not accept the loss of power well.
A crappy billionaire Archie Bunker archetype is running for president, and doing well. The fact that he’s doing well is really not that much of a surprise when I think of it. As a young white male during the “All in the Family” days, I can well remember conversations in school the day after an episode ran. Archie Bunker was well loved by a lot people at the time, and people as a whole don’t change a lot. The reason that a bloviating racist candidate is doing well is that there are a lot of bloviating racist people left in the world today. This is not meant as a complaint or an attack. It is, however, what I see.
On the other hand, there exists a real chance that this crappy billionaire Archie Bunker archetype may well be the BEST Republican candidate in the field.
The idea that we should expect people to tolerate different cultures has, in some circles, been replaced with the concept that we should require (make mandatory at the cost of punitive damages) true respect. This is relatively new, and it’s a problem because as soon as a person feels disrespected, this mindset enables them to target the other person. Let me be clear that I personally agree with the concept of true respect for all. This would effectively make us into a Star Trek world. However, Star Trek was not set in 2015. Let’s start by getting everyone to tolerate each other, then we can take the next step.
Of course, there are those who cannot tolerate because they feel toleration is a form of acceptance, and acceptance is advocacy. This is not new, either. It is also not completely wrong, meaning that I can at least understand the logic that people use to get there. It is, however, mostly wrong. What’s different today is that people who cannot tolerate are being tested in very public ways that did not even exist in the past, and this causes us (allows us, requires us) to discuss exactly what it means to be inclusive in ways that we haven’t had to discuss before. And it exposes levels of antagonism that has, in the past, remained hidden.
It is also obvious, however, that the core idea of inclusion inherent in the earliest days of “Political Correctness” (which is very good and extremely useful as a tool for identifying simpleminded bullies) is often being taken to its extreme. Any concept taken to its extreme is a problem. When you cannot ask someone where they are from without it being taken as a racist micro-aggression, it’s a problem.
Similarly, kids go to college expecting to be spoon-fed, and expecting not only to be listened to, but appeased at all points. This is a problem. Yes, college kids should be made safe from true personal aggression, but they should fully expect to be intellectually challenged. All students (including white males). All subjects (including the politics that have created our privilege).
On the other hand, we’re pegging these kids with $100K in student loan debt upon graduation, so maybe it makes sense that they should get the power they want. It’s a mess, really. The situation in and around campuses is a total mess.
24-hour news media is purposefully driving group-think and willfully teaching factions of people to ignore facts. Fox News is the most obvious practitioner of this, but they are all in the game to some degree. Journalism as entertainment has always existed, but it seems to me that the profession is undergoing (or has undergone) a major shift of its own in the last 10-20 years. (Can we change the old joke to: I turned on Fox News one time and a Comedy Network show broke out?)
Factions here are responding to recent progressive “victories” by overtly attempting to make the country more religious (more Christian, to be specific). They argue that the country had always been religious, so they are just trying to put things back the way it was. In their own way they are right, but those people are ignoring what I (and I believe many others) think is the bigger framework that the country was founded on.
Nearly half of the country (some 45%) hold creationist views on the origins of the species. Another 35% do believe that evolution exists, but that God has made it happen. This is nothing new, as that number has been stable for decades. But it plays in the conversation differently now.
We are losing more people to the Second Amendment than we are to the several silly “wars” that we are fighting.
This means that the gun culture in America is now exposed for what it has always been. We are a country of intimidators. We always have been intimidators. We like the idea of being “benevolent” intimidators and thinking of ourselves as James Dean rebels without a cause. We like the idea of the underdog shit-kickers. As a country, we have always seen value in being the independent range cowboy. The militia culture of our earliest days is a side-car to this idea—independent people, fighting for “justice” (against the state, against criminals, against the savage Indians, against … whoever). The concept of militia that the Second Amendment was built around certainly held value at one point, but that point was a long time ago. Today the value of a gun is easily questionable, and the cost of their prevalence is being paid daily in the blood of innocent people.
I note that the “we” in the above point is clearly white, and generally male. You can test this by putting other cultures into that question. For example: Do you think Asian Americans have always wanted to be James Dean? Has African American culture grown up with glorified ideas about grabbing their muskets to fight off the Red Coats? Does the Hispanic culture in America take joy in the memory of Wild West cattle drives or the shoot-out at OK Corral? No. Not really. This militia concept as the country’s underpinning is generally the view of the white, genetically European, male.
The world’s energy economy is in transition from fossil fuel to renewables. This is a major economic shift and will put a lot of people out of work as well as employ many others. That’s what disruptive technologies do, but the oligarchy built around oil and coal is not letting this happen easily (see above comments about power). The entire conversation about climate change is, in reality, a conversation about oil, coal, and money, though that is not what many people I see arguing about it would say. This gap is among the primary barriers we have to overcome before we can actually solve the climate/energy problem we face today.
I can go on, but if you’ve made it this far you get the point. Emotions are running very high in almost every corner of the country and about almost every issue that exists. Our leadership is not particularly interested in solving the problems that are at the roots of the emotion. This is understandable, really. People who drive political change in this country (or pretty much any country) have a tendency to get shot.
But I look at the world today and I see us undergoing another transition of possibly historic proportion. I see tectonic plates shifting.
In retrospect it seems obvious that we would get to this point. We have made remarkable advances over the time of our history, but we have also left a trail of unsolved problems in our wake (many created by the very advances we have achieved). In that light, it is probably inevitable that humans would eventually come to this point where we have to actually figure out how to deal with the very real differences in the core of how we think about ourselves and about each other.
It is obvious that things are changing, that things have to change.
What is not so obvious is which way the plates will slide, and where we will be when the aftershocks hit.
I’m completely thrilled to report that the latest Fiction River Anthology Hidden in Crime has been officially released. It includes my story “The White Game,” as well as some really outstanding work by a lot of really great writers.
“The White Game” is a story that completely took over my life while I was working on it. It made me think hard about things that have happened in the past, and that still could happen in the future. Stories can be like that, you know? They can be insidious little things, almost dangerous … if you’ll just let them.
Has anyone ever told you that you are a pain in the ass? I mean …
Yes, intellectually I know we both want this thing to all work out fine in the end. My brain tells me we’re on the same team, that you’re a perfectly good book and will come along just fine. But at this point my heart is seriously questioning if you’re actually on board. Characters change, sure. And when characters change, plot changes. I get it. You get it. I get that you get it. Okay?
I love ya, man, and all that. But this is getting ridiculous.
If you were an astronaut and I was your booster, I’m getting to the point where I would consider hurdling you out into deep space on a trajectory toward galaxy Blaghhhhhh. If you were a secret agent and I was your handler, I’m at the point where I’m debating just running you into a dead end and leaving you there for the bad guys to turn you. If you were a …
-…but, alas, you are none of these things.
You are a book. Just pages with word.
And I am the writer. I get to shoes the words. Kind of.
This means I will eventually win, kind of. I will. And it means you will win, too.
So, seriously, let’s get this pouting party over with and get on with the fun part, m’kay?
“If Kris Rusch were sitting across from us right now, she would just shake her head and say I should have just started with a clean sheet,” I said to Lisa a few days ago. We were sitting in a pizza joint just off Thornydale and Tangerine. Lisa had asked me about the work I’ve been doing on this book of mine.
It’s a book I’ve been saying “won’t take more than a week or so to close up” about for about the last two months. And in truth it really shouldn’t be this hard. It’s a book I’ve been envisioning and working on for a long time, and a book that is comprised in part by three short stories I’ve had published by Analog. How hard can it be, eh? Just string ‘em together and be done with it, by God!
And, in fact, it’s a book I “finished” about three weeks ago.
Here’s the rub, though. Here’s the deal, the final truth—here’s the skinny, as it were.
As I was finishing this thing up, I went to see Mary Doria Russell talk about her new book Epitaph. Along the way, she said that she needs to know what every character’s first fourteen years were like, because for her those 14 years serve the foundation upon which a character’s story rests. I let this filter through me as she went on, and as the chain reaction of my thoughts ran its course I knew I wasn’t done with this book. In fact, I knew exactly what was coming—essentially a full rewrite.
So, yes, I probably should have just dumped the manuscript and went back at it from a fresh blank page. But, f course, I didn’t. And right now I’m paying the price. The work it takes to rewrite a book like this is painstaking—it’s like rewiring a city’s entire power grid one block at a time. But I have to say that as each part emerges again, I find I like it more and more. Of course, when one block is done, I then have to go back in to the next block and do it all again—which is becoming mind-numbing in its own way.
The thing is gonna give me PTSD, I’m telling you…
Bottom line: A lot of writers I know (including me) will tell you there is really no one “right way” to complete a manuscript. But, I can report with the utmost sincerity that if there is a “wrong way” to complete a story, I’m 100% certain that finding the real root of your main characters after you’ve completed the story qualifies.
The good folks at Kobo are offering half-price deals on all my stuff! Here’s a pre-configured search to help you find it! Once you’re there, you’ll want to use the promo code for your location as listed below:
Canada (October 28th – October 31st)
Promo Code: CA50SALE
United States/Australia/New Zealand (October 27th – October 30th)
Promo Code: GET50SALE
United Kingdom (October 30th – November 2nd)
Promo Code: UK50SALE
When it takes you nearly two entire days to update your publishing financial data you can probably say several things:
1. Three months is too long between updates
2. You have a ridiculously complex and detailed system
3. Amazon has changed how they do some things since the last time.
4. It’s time to simplify, stupid
On the plus side, at least that’s done and I’m that much closer to being back into the standard flow–which is really what the last two weeks have been about. The house is coming together, slowly but surely. We’ll be getting a new couch set here tomorrow, so the house may actually look almost like a house most everywhere we look at that point.
Lisa’s working full-time, I’m ramping back up to my normal writing cycle (discounting the last two days, anyway.
A week ago I drove my little Miata across the country from Columbus, Indiana (just south of Indianapolis) to Oro Valley, Arizona (just north of Tucson). It was an interesting four days.
Of note is that my Miata is a rag top, and that with the exception of an hour or so when it rained I made the trip with the top down and the sun beating on me. So it was hot, but with the wind and the buffeting of the road it was not so hot. Besides, I’ve always been fine with being warm.
What this means, however, is that the experience was different than many might have. I’ll call it a cross between a car trip and a motorcycle quest. There is, you see, a different physical sensation to being on the road when your top is down—I mean, really ass-on-seat being on the road; where you can hear, smell, and sometimes even taste the world around you. You begin to notice the quality of the road by the pitch of the whine your tires make as they sing against the concrete. You recognize a truck you’ve passed before by the grind of its pistons.
You smell grass. You hear your engine as it builds speed or goes quiet as you coast along down a long mountain trail. You feel that engine work in tandem with the brakes to slow you down.
I stopped at a bunch of places along the way. Lisa had made it clear that I should take my time getting out here. I think she wanted me to find sites I could take a day and go exploring, but I had a different mindset. I looked for “small” places, things that wouldn’t draw a million people a year, but that represented important qualities about us as people, and maybe even about us as Americans. And I wanted them to be places that doubled as rest breaks from driving—simple 30 minutes stops that felt important, spaced out every 3-4 hours of road time. In other words, I wanted to do things no one else would have thought about, but were really cool.
Here’s my experience.
Day 1: O’Fallon, MO—I left Columbus after lunch the first day, and made it just west of St. Louis where I met up with Tom and Rachel Carpenter for a fantastic dinner at McGurks (which I think is their favorite place). In honor of Lisa I had salmon, and I learned a bunch about how Tom and Rachel are thinking about building their business as writer, publisher, and cover artist (Rachel did all the covers on Saga of the God-Touched Mage). Tom is the author of the Dashkova Memoirs, which is a great historical fantasy/steampunk mashup. You should check it out.
Day 2, Stop 1: Carthage, MO/Joplin, MO—Up bright and early, I took a long jag to Carthage (nearly six hours…sheesh…this was the only stint of my trip that Google Maps totally mangled as far as timing is concerned). I came here to see the site of the first civil war skirmish after Lincoln invoked war powers. The battle was essentially over whether Missouri would enter the war on the north or the south, a question that was under very hot debate. It was a victory for the south, though it turned out that the result was not quite so convincing. Missouri would teeter on the brink of both sides.
The site is a little hard to find today.
It’s just a quiet little field that’s been made into a kid’s park, which I guess is interesting in its own way. They built a hutch under a ridge of trees to mark the goings on that happened here. I got out of the car and walked around the little field, and I read the history. It was a quiet place. Cool in the shade. As I stood there, I kept thinking how the mere idea of a US Senator leading a fighting force against the country so that other humans could be kept as slaves seemed so … strange. Like it should be science fiction.
I walked down the street to get a picture of the gateway they erected to mark the place.
Day 2, Stop 2: Then I took a quick hour or so’s drive to Joplin, MO, where I did a drive-by of the house that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Darrow used as a hideout for a couple weeks back in their prime. In 1933 the story goes that police raided the place, and that two of them wound up dead. Undeveloped photos left at the site lead to Bonnie and Clyde’s eventual demise.
Here’s a brief video with the story:
I drove to the place, which is an active residence, and just parked on the side of the road to take this picture. Though the site is a nationally registered landmark, from the outside there’s nothing beyond that little plaque that you can see if you look closely enough to suggest any daring-do ever occurred here. It’s just a house with a flat built of stone behind it. Somehow, this makes the place just that much more interesting.
This is Bonnie and Clyde we’re talking about, after all. Maybe the last of the Wild West outlaws. Dillinger was Chicago-and-Elkhart mid-western, you see. And Pretty Boy Floyd was southern east-coast. But Bonnie and Clyde have a different feel. Their story is like a modern-day western with guns blazing against the wild-west lawmen and jalopies as horses. They operated in the “west” you see—not LA west, but Texas west. And Oklahoma and Louisiana and, yes, Missouri.
They were the last of that breed, and as I sat in my car and gave the place one more glance the fact that their hideout has seeped into the calmness of everyday life seems somehow appropriate.
Day 3, Stop 1: I spent the night at Tulsa, then hopped onto 44 to drive out past Oklahoma City and into Binger, OK—the boyhood home of Johnny Bench, the greatest catcher who ever lived (apologies to the recently deceased Yogi Berra). Binger is a little bitty place. Main Street has a collection of ten or fifteen buildings. A Shell station, City Hall, and an insurance place. A Mexican restaurant sits on the farthest street corner that empties out onto SR 152. It’s an open, dusty kind of place. It, like most of the Southwest, is pretty clearly a church-going, gun-toting kinda town. I would suggest they are not big fans of Barack Obama here. That said, the folks were friendly and open in an almost clichéd fashion. And, yes, it was hot.
My goal was to attend the Johnny Bench Museum, which it turns out is easy to get close to but a bit hard to find. It sits in the building that serves as city hall and sheriff’s office, but is nestled in with what I’ll assume is the town’s only insurance broker’s place. The museum was dark when I found it, but when I poked my head into the sheriff’s office the attendant walked me around the back and let me in. She explained a little about the sources of the collection, then let me free to browse on my own.
So it was just me and my best buddy Johnny Bench.
Talk about the American dream. A young kid from nowhere plays high school ball in a bunch of dusty ballparks and rises up to be one of the most successful and innovative players of all time. Innovative, you say? Yes. Ever see a catcher catch with two hands anymore? No, you don’t. That’s a Benchism. Anyway, I spent fifteen minutes looking at jerseys and bats and pictures and whatnot. I saw the signatures of Johnny, and Pete Rose, and Joe Morgan. Tony Perez. Sparky Anderson. It was great fun. Made me think of the times when I was twelve or so, and listening to the Big Red Machine on the radio.
Day 3, Stop 2: I left Binger and Ddrove a half hour or so down to Anadarko, OK, where I stopped in at the Southern Plains Indian Museum. (Thanks for the recommendation, Meg!). One is not allowed to take photos there, so I’ll have to do it justice with just these words. Bottom line: it’s a small place, filled mostly with contemporary art and American Indian dress, though I more thoroughly enjoyed a series of dioramas created in the 1950s by renowned artist Allan Haozous, who was born of the Chiricahua Apache tribe and had family ties to Geronimo, and who later took the name of Houser. For basic reference, members of this tribe were ones who, when they refused to move from New Mexico to Arizona as the government required them to do, were boxed into railroad cars and sent to prison in Florida. I’ll leave you to draw your own connections.
These histories are not really found in the Southern Plains Museum, though. The museum has a bit of a discussion about tribal migrations, but the whole thing is fairly light fare. Perfect for a fifteen-thirty minute stop, great for getting a feel for American Indian handicraft and artwork, but not deep on educational material.
Though I should say that there was one spot in particular—just a poster, really—tacked on the wall in the children’s section. It depicted the vast array of American Indiana tribes, where they came from, and identified in the language of the tribe itself. Hundreds of tribes. Hundreds of different types of people. Most of them gone now. All of them fundamentally changed by (as a few notations euphemistically noted) the “European influence.”
As I drove away, I was really happy to have found this place, both for the craftwork and for the opportunity to see Alan Haozous’s work. But just as much for the opportunity to think about what it meant when I went to school and learned about how American expansion moved across the wild and “unsettled” west. I was thinking about this as I got back on SR 152. I was thinking about it for a very long time, because 152 is stick-straight and goes on for a gazillion miles, and because there really was no traffic on that highway. It was just me and the harsh sage and the sun beating down. I could smell rock and dust. And then I got to think about it even more when I transferred to I-40, which is long and straight and nearly as sparsely driven. I thought about it all the way to Tucumcari, New Mexico where I spent the night.
The Southwest is a great big place, it seems, even now. There just aren’t a lot of people here.
Perhaps I’m guilty of simpleton thinking done of the modern age, but it seems like there ought to have been a way to leave the indigenous folks here without any problem.
Anyway, as a final thought on the day’s drive, I thought it was mega-cool to be wandering through northern Texas and see zero oil wells but probably eight huge wind farms. The times are changing, friends. Slowly, but hopefully surely. I know there are those who think these things are unattractive, but I am the opposite. I felt very science fictiony as I drove parts of this path.
Also, while photos are not allowed at the museum, Google is a great thing. When I got here I did a little looking. Here’s the map in question.
Day 4, Stop 1: So I came to the last day, a ten hour day of driving over dusty roads in New Mexico, taking the proverbial left at Albuquerque, and eventually enjoying the gorgeous views of the twisting parts of I-60 that wind through what I’ll call the mini-grand canyon in the northeaster reaches of Arizona. That last portion was stunning in its beauty, stressful with its mountainous roads, and much fun to drive in my little Miata with its top pulled down.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My first stop was just west of Socorro, NM (or more appropriately, just west of Magdalena, NM—a tiny place whose name reminded me of the woman who once wrote Water, which was a ground-breaking blog before there were blogs, but I am now so totally digressing). Socorro/Magdalena is the site of the Very Large Array, which is the huge multi-dish radio telescope that covers a couple hundred square miles, and spends every minute of the day listening to space. You might have seen parts of it in Contact or in Carl Sagan’s work. It is very, very cool. Probably the highlight of the trip (though I should warn you, if you go be prepared—it’s way, way off the beaten path so you need to bring your own food and make sure you get gassed up before hand).
The last leg of the drive takes you three or four miles off of SR 60, along a tiny, crunching road that is technically concrete but might as well be gravel. I didn’t care, tough, because all I could see were the big, beautiful dishes.
I spent a good hour here. There’s a nice walking tour, with a bunch of stops. You can see a dish close-up, and you get a good overview of what radio waves are, how they travel through space, and how the system collects its data. In the visitor’s center, they show a 20 minute movie that’s pretty interesting if you’re into space and such radio projects. It’s amazing to think about how small we really are, and how little what we do really matters in the overall scope of the universe. Matching this experience with the drive through the Snake River Canyon was a good way to bring this whole thing to its end point.
My Big-Ol’ Summary: It rained as I was crossing into Arizona, so I had maybe 45 minutes of driving with the top up. It wasn’t nearly as fun. I couldn’t hear the wind in my ears, and the trucks didn’t sound as real as they should have. If felt distant. Like I was compartmentalized.
When Lisa and I get to a new city we like to walk around in it for a day. Just wander its streets. You get a feel for a place when you immerse yourself into it, and so we walked Chicago in the old days, and we walked Toronto earlier this summer. When I went to Australia, I spent several nights walking that city. During my drive through the rain, I realized that this is what I was doing while I was driving. Top down. Immersed. Or at least more immersed, or more in-tune with the ground around me than the usual car ride might let me be.
I saw a writer friend. I saw a place where the country fought over the right to own slaves (or, if you’re a States Rights kind of arguer, the right to do whatever we want, which most specifically includes own slaves). I saw an outlaws’ hideout from the last of the true wild lawless days. I visited the place where a great of the national pastime became who he was. I got a taste of the world from the viewpoint of the American Indian in the southwest. And, then, I saw what I hope to define the distant future.
Along the way, I drove highways and side-streets. I did twisting little things, and I ran along historic Route 66. It was a beautiful little drive. I’m glad I did it.
As I was driving, I found myself humming a song, of course. If you’ve made it this far, I’ll leave it here for you, in two forms:
Whew. It’s been nearly three months, but the day has dawned. Tomorrow I should be heading west. Finally. It’ll take me four or five days to drive the distance. In celebration, I thought I would go ahead and put the omnibus edition of Saga on a steep 50% discount while I’m on the road! So, there.
Yes, from now until September 20th you can get a half-priced ebook version at the following places:
The moving guys are scheduled to show up Monday to pack up. Tuesday we’ll load the truck. I’ll clean up a few loose ends, and then expect to be on the road heading toward Arizona sometime Wednesday. I am ready to go.
I was thirty-two years old when we bought this house, though since the builder was still putting it together when we signed away pretty much all of our savings it was only about half a house. This meant I had to keep making the 45-minute commute from Indy for a couple months before we moved in. I remember I would stop by the land pretty much every evening just to watch the place go up. I was here before the drywall went in. Before the stairs were installed. I saw it before it became a home. You can say, I suppose, that I saw this house’s bones. Pre-soul, as it were. It was November and December. I remember walking through the floor plan in the cold, picking my way through the open studs like I was edging through a tight forest of bare board. My footsteps echoed on hollow flooring, my breath billowed about me. When I see it in my memories it feels edgy somehow.
Those days don’t seem like very long ago.
I’ve been alone in the house for the past two weeks. This is because Lisa is already in Arizona, managing some work on the new place while I deal with the final process of disconnecting our lives from this one.
We’re downsizing. At that stage where we just don’t need so much stuff.
So over the past two months I’ve made a gazillion trips to Sans Souci (enough that the workers there got to calling me “the little red car guy” and would wave when I left, and call out “see you tomorrow!”). I’ve sold off a healthy collection of our furniture. Food has gone to the food bank. Some stuff has been trashed, a bunch more recycled. A big TV went to the local shelter for victims of domestic violence, as have several old cell phones. I’ve decommissioned an embarrassing number of computers. (11 machines for two people? Seriously?) The couch and a coffee table went to a used furniture store. Several pieces of furniture have gone to folks who paid pennies on the dollar for them (which I’m 100% fine with…we don’t need them, and we would rather someone get a great deal rather than have it go to waste). Painting is finished, as are the repairs (except that there’s always something left to do, right?)
It’s a remarkable thing to see all your stuff slowly leave the house. It’s like losing weight. You work your butt off, but at first you don’t really notice any difference. Then it suddenly gets to the point where every day something else is gone, and pretty soon you start to look around and the place is looking thinner and more open. The family room gapes, and the dining room seems three times bigger. Your basement office echoes.
So tonight I’m sitting here, essentially ready to go.
The back door is open. The night is getting chilly, and I can smell the after-effects of this afternoon’s rain. The sky is darkening. I’ve got a baseball game playing on the television. The Reds and the Cardinals are together but heading different directions.
I’ve found that for the past day or two my mind has been going back to the time when I was visiting this place every day. Just me. In the afternoon or evening gloaming, often similar to the sky outside now. I remember this sense of wonder the ground had back then, a sense of excitement. Maybe confidence? Our time in Columbus was just starting.
It’s been a beautiful city for us, really. Columbus has. It’s stuck in the mid-west and so it’s full of mid-western values—which are pragmatic and frustrating and amazing and staunch and sometimes given with begrudging tolerance and sometimes not so much. Columbus is small, but big. It’s comfortable. It’s diverse except for when it’s not. It’s full of smart people. It’s been a great place for us to be a family.
We lived in this house, which was built between farmland and a children’s park (the farmland was later developed, the park remains), and that now is so empty. How empty, you ask? Well, I have only a few places to sit. A couple stools, and a computer chair downstairs. That’s it. Oh, and our patio furniture. I can go out there and sit down, too.
So I expect I’ll go through much of the weekend standing. [grin]
I could reel off specific moments that happened here, but I won’t. They wouldn’t mean anything to you, so I’ll not bore you any more than I have. All I’ll say is that Brigid grew up in this place. I became a writer here. Lisa ran her business out of the basement of this house. We had cats.
When we came here, we had no idea this city and this house would become the place we will probably always think of when someone asks us where we’re from.
Then again, what does “from” really mean?
I was actually born in Arizona, after all. But until now I considered myself “from” Louisville. Yet, Columbus—and this house—has been our home. So I wonder what I’ll say when people ask where I’m from. I don’t know what I’ll say, really. I’m fifty-four years old now. Not thirty-two. So I all I can say is that I know a lot less than I once thought I did.
All I say with great certainty is that I’ll miss the place.
I’m writing this while standing here in my nearly empty living room. I have turned off the TV sound and I can hear crickets singing outside. From the road in front of the house, the solitary sound of a single set of tires grind on pavement. The refrigerator hums along. Air flows in the vents.
If I close my eyes and let my senses go I can hear the house moving. Its framework emits a thread of silence that feels like an electric field hovering just close enough to my consciousness to raise the hair on my arms and on the back of my neck. It’s whispering, I think. The house is talking to me. Saying goodbye, maybe. If I open my mind I can feel the wood of the house’s structure standing upright and firm. If I close my eyes I can picture myself walking through its walls back in the time when those struts were nothing but two-by-fours open to the world. I remember them. I remember the sensations that lay in those beams, the feeling of grain rough against the skin of my palm.
It was a feeling of anticipation, a feeling of the future.
It’s the same sense I get when I think of putting my behind into my car and pointing the front wheels to the west, out to Arizona where I’ll get to meet up once again with my parents, and with the love of my life—who I miss right now more than I can ever, ever, ever possibly convey. It’s the same sense I get when I hang up from a conversation with Brigid (like I did earlier in the day).
What will I say the next time someone asks me where I’m from?
That’s a real question that I’m sitting here grappling with.
People mean something specific when they ask it. Maybe I’ll say Louisville, and maybe I’ll say Columbus. Both of them work. I’ve loved being from both places.
But if I have grown to understand anything from being alone in this house for the last two weeks, it is this:
If I’m thinking right, when someone asks where I’m from I’ll tell them that I’m from my mom and my dad, who I’m so terribly excited about seeing again. And maybe I’ll say that I’m from my brother, who formed my early years—and from some friends. But if I’m thinking with an even more true read, and if I’m willing to sound perhaps a bit smooshy, I’ll say that I’m from Brigid (who, by merely existing and being who she is, probably changed me more than anyone else ever could). Then I’ll point to Lisa, and I’ll tell them I’m from her—that she is the one person who has made me who I am, and who, for me, is the person who changes a house into a home, wherever the heck that happens to be.
I loved this house, you see. But a house is just a house. And this house isn’t empty because it’s running short of furniture.
Before I quit my day job to do this writing thing full time, I was talking to a co-worker who asked if it is lonely to write. Yes, I thought, it is kinda lonely in a way, but it’s not so lonely in another way. That’s a complex thing to discuss, though, so instead I answered like this:
“Well, in reality,” I said. “I’ve always got a lot of characters running around in my head. So there’s always someone to talk to.”
As I recall, the co-worker suggested I might not want to admit this to a lot of other folks if I wanted them to think I was sane. [grin]
Anyway, against that backdrop: there I was, writing along today when one of my characters forcefully spoke up and made me tweak her political viewpoint from “the government should not impede a person’s freedom,” to become “the government should not impede a person’s freedom unless that person was impeding another person’s freedom.”
Actually, she made the change almost without me noticing it, but then I stopped and thought about what had actually just happened. If you think about it, this is a very big change of philosophy. I asked her if she was certain about this, and she just stood there with her arms crossed and said she wasn’t going forward without the change.
Suddenly, I realized this altered a whole lot about how I viewed the story. In fact made a lot of the issues I was having with mental constipation go away.
So, yeah. The change stays.
And I’ll file it away as one more piece of evidence (among the avalanche) that my characters often know the root of their own story better than I do.
It’s a happy Friday when Kobo decides to give 50% off for all my stuff! (Assuming, that is, you’re a reader in Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, or South Africa, anyway). I hear you, my friends. I really do. You’re asking me, “Ron, how does one go about getting this fantastic discount?” And my answer is this: you fill up your sales cart by clicking on the links below, and then as you’re checking out you enter:
Promo Code: SALE50
You can use this code multiple times from now through August 31st, so if you’ve been waiting for just such an event, this seems like a great time to pick up a copy of work like:
It’s an interesting list on the whole, and one I recommend pursuing. I was particularly pleased to see Kai Ashante Wilson’s “The Devil in America” included, as I thought that was a totally kick-ass story and was slated to be my next Rongo Award winner had I taken time away from my move activities to continue the process. It is a bit of a challenging story, though. Hard to read, but not due to any lack of skill from the author—no. Just the opposite. It’s a very “dark fantasy” rather than work of science fiction, set, among other places and times, in and around post-Civil War America. It focuses on non-white characters, and it has zero ray guns. Clearly not the kind of story the Rabids would enjoy.
But if you want a story that moves, a story with a sense of dark magic to it, a story that is (yes) entertaining, and a story that will make you think about a lot of things, my guess is that you’ll find “The Devil in America” to be a very worthy read.
The other story I was pleased to see here was Eugie Foster’s “When it Ends, He Catches Her” (Podcast Version, which if you like podcasts, I highly recommend). I admit I hadn’t read this until now, but it is both quite moving and represents the community’s last opportunity to award her work. This is a touching story, one that could not exist without its science fictional conceit, but a story that owes its power, its purpose, and its value to the power of what love means.
These are both remarkable pieces of work.
We can always just kind of shake our heads at what the Puppies have done, and we can say it will all work out in the end. It will, of course. But among the real costs of their shenanigans and tomfoolery is that stories like these two (and others) lost the opportunity to be recognized. For that, it would be nice if we were all saddened.
My beloved wife is a fan of music. I am too. But I think just as much, she’s a fan of noise. By this I mean she does not really like to be in a room full of silence. When she goes into a room, music comes on. When she is going to go into a room, she makes sure the room has music on before she gets there if possible (oh, the modern wonders of wireless devices!). Since the time that we have been together, we have always slept with music on and the volume set low.
And I’m always fine with that. I like music, too.
But I also like my silence, or I like having regular sounds around me at times, and that includes something that I’ll call silence. For example, I drive without the radio on often because I like to hear the traffic around me. This is even better with the top down in my little Miata. I like hearing brakes, and squeaking cars and squealing fan belts. I like hearing the thump of music coming from the enclosed compartments of cars filled with kids or whatever. And, don’t tell Lisa this, but sometimes I even turn off the music when I’m home alone. The sound of silence is a unique sound, meaning it’s different everywhere. There’s a strong cycle to it in the basement, focused on the ventilation system or the furnace (depending on the time of year). The sound of the kitchen is a low hum augmented by any breeze scrubbing against the window.
I’m thinking about this right now because I recently heard a simple, but really fascinating podcast from Here Be Monsters on the subject. It’s titled “Fear of Silence”, and it’s some 14 minutes long. The conceit of the piece is built around what happens when an interviewer has to spend two minutes in silence with another person (the interviewee) in order to get a background sound check.
I loved this podcast because it made me think of what silence is.
Not, of course, that I have any answers.
But I thought you might find it interesting, and I thought you might be in a place of your life where spending a few minutes thinking about silence would be helpful.
If you’re focused at all on the Hugo Awards, by now you know that the Sad and Rabid Puppy slate was soundly defeated by an avalanche of “No Award” votes, and that the fallout is beginning to spin in multiple directions. This is, alas, almost certainly not over.
Looking back on it all, my own take is pretty much this:
The Rabids pulled of a feat worthy of a high school Sophomore by legally, but idiotically, stealing the nomination vote. Most people, in moments of clarity, would call this “pulling a dick move.” To them, this was equivalent to stealing your rival’s mascot the night before the big game.
The Sads have been horrifically tone deaf to every element of the situation (though I believe them a little when they say their primary goal is to return the field to its laser-gun roots).
The Sads’ tone deafness allowed the Rabids to use them as their mouthpiece.
The Rabids are anarchists at heart, and consider anything that increases entropy around a case to be a “win” (as such they are, of course, declaring victory today).
Being human beings, the Sads have now defended their stupendously flawed logic by doubling down on their position so many times that it’s impossible for them to acknowledge they were wrong—even if they ever figure out they were.
The magnitude of the numbers pretty much show how out of touch they are.
I have no idea what will happen going forward. I suspect this is not one that will blow over, though. Larry C., Brad T., and their gang have pretty much burned whatever bridges there are to burn, so if there are long term ramifications to them, we’ll clearly be able to find out. My guess is that their fan base will grow due to the Trump effect if nothing else.
In the meantime, I see the voting results as a firm response from the SF world as a whole, a world that despite commentary to the opposite, is a broad thing. Yes, the historical core is getting older, but Fandom is not “old.” And the historical core leans heavily toward white and male, but Fandom is not “white and male.” Fandom is changing. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s getting to be a bigger and different thing than it ever was. I was smugly proud of the folks in Spokane this week. I liked that they stood as a whole and made a statement that was a firm rebuke to the Rabids (and by association, the Sads). It was the community standing up and saying: “Go away, Dudes. This is not how we play the game in my house.”
Interested in my short work? You can now get 35% off a copy of my short story collection Picasso’s Cat & Other Stories at Kobo this weekend. And, if you want a double-dose of Collins, you can get the same 35% discount on Singer, the first book in Brigid’s Songbird River Chronicles–for which, a little bird tells me book 3 will be out in the next few months!
That should keep you in reading material for a bit.
Just enter code AUGUST35 at check-out (use it as often as you like).
Today, for the first time in over three weeks, I sat down to write for real. Three hours. That’s what I scheduled, and that’s what I pretty much did (with only a small interruption in the middle). I sat in my nearly empty basement and pulled up my Work in Process, and I started in on it.
Let me tell you how much I sucked. I mean. Really. Really sucked.
I felt clumsy. I felt lost. I felt as out of touch as Donald Trump might.in a room full of intellectuals. The words, they just kinda stuck together, you know? All I could bring to the page were simple thoughts and a few cool sounding phrases that almost meant something reasonable, but, sadly in the end, merely just sat there waving at me like a five year-old calling out “Look at me, look at me! I’m writing here! Look at me!”
Despite that, I’ve got to say it was a great morning.
So great that after this writing session I was happily picking up stuff to drive to Sans Souci, and jauntily tossing stuff in the trash, and humming along with Radio Paradise as I ate lunch and loaded up the car. Then—after dropping stuff off and recycling a printer cartridge—I carried that little wave of joy with me right on through to give myself a reward: Ice cream at Ritters (Reese’s Cup glacier with chocolate ice cream, if you must know).
Yes, this moving thing is a monster. Yes, it’s a high stress thing for everyone around. But at the end of the day life is pretty danged good in the Collins household right now, and a morning of crappy writing can be fixed, you see. In fact, it’s moments like this that remind me of two important things—first, that most mornings are full of crappy writing that must be fixed; and second, that a morning filled with crappy writing beats a morning doing just about anything else.
I’m taking a break to catch up on some stuff this afternoon, and I’m quite pleased to show you the cover to 2113, an anthology of stories based on songs by Rush. You may remember that this volume will include a short story of mine titled “A Patch of Blue” (which is based on the ultra-cool song “Natural Science”).
I’m totally stoked about this one.
How stoked? Well … so stoked that if I had a time machine right now, I would hop in it and go back to a night in, say, 1980 when I would invariably be down in Charlie Stonefield’s basement with my brother, playing pool and using the cues to play air guitar along with Rush (among others). And when I got there, I would open my laptop and show me this cover and just watch myself go into fits when I learned that I would have a story in this thing. I’m grinning just imagining that now. I can see the guys high-fiving and cranking up the record player.
A month ago I posted about my planning process. In it, I wrote this:
A plan is just a plan. It is, by its very nature, the one way you can pretty much guarantee your project will not actually happen. I mean, seriously here … something is guaranteed to go wrong. Something will happen in a way you did not plan. This is the way of life.
In my case, the something has turned out to be this: we’re up and moving.
That’s right, after essentially fifty years living in the great mid-west, Lisa and I are now deeply into the process of moving our home out to the mountainous drylands of Arizona–just north of Tucson, Oro Valley to be precise. We have several reasons for this, but the greatest by far is that the house we’ve picked out is a grand total of one mile away from my parents. It will be more than great to spend some time with them again. It’s been nearly a decade since we lived close enough to them.
You can guess the drill that’s been going on here in Columbus since we made that decision: close on one house, get another ready for the market. Since Lisa has the main day-job, she spends her weekends identifying things we’re keeping and things we’re not. Then most of the intense implementation process clearly falls on my shoulders. I break the stuff down. I move the stuff. You get the idea. And since we’ve been in this house for 22ish years, we’ve got a lot of stuff. What this means is that for three weeks, 100% of my effort has been focused on the house. Trashing stuff, donating stuff, selling stuff, organizing, planning, re-planning, reviewing and signing documents, making a gazillion decisions. All day. Every day. For three weeks.
It’s all quite daunting. Half priced books has seen me four times. The entire gang at Sans Souci welcomes me back every day.
This means I’m not doing much email (if I owe you a response, I apologize…I’ll get to it, I promise!). It means I’m barely skimming things like Twitter and Facebook. It means I’m not posting. It means I’m not marketing work. And mostly, it means I’m not writing. My plan has been shattered into about a katrillion pieces.
Yes, it’s been a long, long three weeks.
Our actual move date isn’t final, yet, but it’s earlier than later—maybe mid-September? Dunno. I’ll write more when I know more. The light is at the end of the tunnel, though. The path is now fairly clear, and I’m optimistic of being able to actually get back to a manuscript at least part-time by Friday.
We’ll see if there still exist words in my head. I hope the keyboard still feels right.
Once I’m going in the right direction again, we’ll go back and see about that plan. [grin] In the meantime, can anyone tell me something fun about the SF community in Tucson?
Perhaps the biggest change in my life since I started writing full-time has been the fact that I generally sleep 7-8 hours a night. It turns out that this is a huge deal. I mean, it’s a major, big-assed deal. Yes, back when I worked the corporate desk I read all the scientific studies that described exactly how much damage I was doing to myself when I didn’t sleep enough, but I did what pretty much everyone else I knew who read those studies did.
I ignored them.
If you’ve followed me for the 20+ years this blog has been in existence, you’ll know that back then I was one of those guys who got up at 4:30 AM to do my writing. The job I had was one of those full-time+ kinds of things—you know, the basic gig where 40 hours a week is just the starting point of the negotiation. And, let’s face it, I generally loved my job(s). The work was fun and I could see its value. It was mostly interesting. I was dedicated to the company and the people I worked with. I did not half-ass my work, so sometimes that meant 70 hour work weeks. Other times it meant 50. Others maybe only 42. You get the idea.
And I have a wife and daughter, who I have always known I could not deal with losing. Ever. Which meant my evenings were generally spoken for.
So, yeah. Four-freaking-thirty. The alternative was to not write at all, and the bottom line for me was that if I chose a path that didn’t include writing I would then be, for the most part, considerably unhappy. So in my days as a corporate guy, I probably averaged four-to-five hours of sleep a night, with the occasional six or seven-hour night.
Add it all up and it meant that for much of my life I’ve walked around in a state of sleep deprivation. I was, as the New Yorker article I’ll link to at the end of this piece would say, a member of the Walking Dead.
I’m thinking about that right now because all day long today my attention span has been terrible. All day long I’ve been physically incapable of concentrating for long periods of time. My brain fought my attempts to stay on task. It slithered away from the pressure of thinking about hard decisions on complex word choice or other elements of twisting words onto the manuscript page. Every now and again I would catch what I thought was going to be a solid word-wave (you writers know what I mean), but I would inevitably be disappointed when that wave faded away all too quickly. I just couldn’t stay on the board, you know?
Looking at the past few days shows where the root of the problem is.
Today is Tuesday. Sunday night, with the soldiers of nearby Camp Atterbury machine-gunning away throughout much of the night, I couldn’t sleep (though I did manage about two hours of a nap in the early part or Monday morning). Then, of course, last night in Indiana was full of dramatic thunder, gale-force winds, lightning, and hail—which meant we got to bed quite late (past 1:00 AM), and received uneven sleep. Getting up this morning was like trying to pull Excalibur from the stone.
This means that for the past two days I’ve probably averaged about three hours of sleep. This is a major dip from my now-normal seven or eight hours.
I felt it in my work today. I felt it in the way my brain slithered out of the pressure of thinking about hard decisions as I tried to twist words onto the manuscript page. A time or two I caught what I thought was going to be a great word wave, only to find that I couldn’t stay on the board for very long. What work I manged to get done was (I think … I hope) good, but I can attest to the fact that I did not get nearly my normal production accomplished.
Bottom line here: Overall, today felt a lot like I was listening to an old cassette tape that was on its way to getting stretched out. You guys of the 8-track age know what I mean. I could make out the music and all that stuff, but it felt like it should be backing something by David Lynch.
It made me think about my friends where I once worked. It made me think about Lisa, my gorgeous better half who still works there. It made me think about the articles that recently ran in the New Yorker (which I highly recommend, and which I’ll link to below—thanks to Srikanth for the links). It made me realize that I am no longer walking around in a daze like I once was, and it made me wonder about how much more effective I would have been at work if I had not worked so many hours. The almost certain truth is that I would have been much more valuable if I had cut my work time an hour a day (and given that time to sleep).
This issue I’m feeling today will go away because I’m sleeping well overall. But I’m happy to experience a day like today because it serves as proof that those stories are right—I was clearly less productive today, and it was clearly because of my sleep patterns.
So, my friends who are still sacrificing sleep to work major hours on a routine basis, you can take my word for it that these articles are as spot-on as they are interesting to read:
Yes, in the rain. A walk. Totally. By this I mean that it was raining when I left the house and rained for pretty much the entire two hours I was walking around in it. I got soaked. Water ran down my face and into my eyes. Water seeped through the jacket I wore. I walked along a road where cars drove by, splashing, tires hissing against the wet pavement.
When she heard I had done that, Lisa asked “Why would you do that?”
But I have to admit I had a good time.
It was a nice summer rain, after all. No thunder. No lightning. Just water against a gray skyline. It was warm enough to walk in shorts, warm enough that the dampness built a thermal barrier between my shirt and jacket that kept me comfortable. I took a path away from the roads, and strolled along the “quiet” of a woodsy area and some farmland.
Things smell different when it’s raining. Heavier, and thicker. The taste of the rain is colored by the taint of your sweat in a different way. The sound of your footsteps are softer, the calls of birds are sharper, and the color of the grass is a deeper green.
Sometimes people driving by in cars would give me a bit of a skewed glance. There I was, after all, a thoroughly soaked oldish guy in soaked jacket and black athletic shorts. Probably looked a bit ragamuffinish, A bit strange. But what did I care? It was fun, it wasn’t hurting anyone, and it gave me a chance to look at things in a different way than I normally look at them.
With everything else going on in the world right now, I’m left thinking that maybe more people should take a break and go walk in the rain.
Brandon Crilley recently linked me into a post he did about planning his writing activity during the summer period (he supports his writing habit by being a teacher in the real world, so he has to use his “down time” as efficiently as possible). I responded that I would write a post about my somewhat insane planning methods. This is that post.
At one point, I used to plan like Brandon does—relatively short term, and focused on creating new words. Before I started doing this full time, and before I broke my “business” into traditional and indie publishing activity, that process completely worked for me. But once I started doing this full time, I felt like I should look at the problem differently. Then, once I started the indie route for some of my work, I quickly came to the realization that I needed to get serious about planning.
Part of the issue here is that I work in a squishy world where the product is an element of creativity, and sometimes that process is hard to truly predict (unless one has a very firm deadline). Another issue is that, while I know people who work serially (one thing at a time) I tend to have multiple projects going at any one time, and they tend to be in very different stages. I also write short stories and novels (and have a small degree of a life). But the real truth here is that life as a writer and an indie publisher can get pretty complicated at times. Everything is simple, but there are a billion moving parts and only one me, so the complexity of this process can get overwhelming if I’m not thinking clearly about where I am and where I’m going at any one moment.
I’m also a project manager at heart, which means I can handle almost any level of ambiguity as long as I can put it on a spreadsheet or a Gantt chart.
Anyway, here’s what I do.
Bottom line, I break my work into three separate plans:
1) Year-out Plan: a rolling behemoth that includes all projects I intend to get to in the next twelve months. This is updated every month, of course, with a new month added at the end.
2) Month-out Plan: Basically a focused look at the current (or next) month as defined by the Year-out plan.
3) A WIN (What’s Important Now) plan: A day-by-day plan for what I’m working on this week. I structure this based on things I need to focus on in order to meet the Month-out plan.
Let me touch on each of these in order.
I have evolved this approach over the past year. My goal was to find something fairly concise (fits on 1-2 pages) that can let me see all the work I want to accomplish, as well as the timing of when it needs to occur.
What I’ve come up with looks like this: (click to expand)
As you can see, to fit my goal for planning, I’ve abstracted the high-level tasks a writer does while writing short work and novels, and abstracted the high-level publishing tasks an indie publisher does to create, manage, and launch their products, then laid them all together as items on the vertical axis of a spreadsheet. I then used the horizontal axis as my time flow. This feels very much like a Gantt chart—which makes me happy.
In order to see my specific projects flow better, I color code each work I’m doing. My latest, for example, was completing a novel titled “The Knight Deception.” This book was color-coded in green. My next work is reconfiguring two SF novels (Stealing the Sun 1/2), this work is color-coded in orange and red. By using this scheme, I can see at a glance how projects should flow both through time, and the creation/production process as time moves along.
My month-out plan is really just a focused look at the current month. For example, when I look at the July column of my Year-out plan, I see I really need to accomplish five things:
1) Review the plot and structure of my Stealing-the Sun project.
2) Get a serious kick-start on completing the first Stealing the Sun book (to finish in August)
3) Finish up work on my short story “Running Tribe” (itself another rewrite)
4) Develop the full concept (TOC, etc.) of the short story collection I intend to put out in November.
5) Make a final pass at the print design of the new print design I intend to use while releasing the print version of “Picasso’s Cat” from Skyfox.
WIN (What’s Important Now)
This is where the rubber meets the road. I call it a WIN plan in honor of my last boss’s boss (yes, Srikanth, I’m looking at you), who used this concept to focus the organization on things he thought were important to keep touch with. He used them for bigger, over-arching initiatives. I use the label to identify things that I truly must do now to achieve my longer term goals.
At the beginning of each week I break my tasks into what I intend to get done each day. Of course, I have a form for this. Sometimes, I break form, and just go with a blank sheet of paper, but I like the form because it reminds me of the various categories of my work, and (since I put “Word Creation” at the top) it makes it abundantly clear when I’m kidding myself about my writing. It’s very important that writers create new words on a routine basis, but I’m like most writers I know—quite capable of pretending that all sorts of stuff that doesn’t result in new words are actually “writing.”
Anyway, here’s my form: (click to expand)
On the whole, when I do this well, I find that I generally achieve my weekly expectations (plus more). In the cases where I miss my targets, I move them into the following week, which brings me too …
Managing the Process
Throughout my life as a project manager, some folks I worked with would give me grief about the basic idea of a plan. “It’s never right,” people would say. “You can’t plan for development. You can’t predict invention. You can’t constrain creation!” Or, for another example, I was once at a writer’s workshop, listening to another writer describe his planning methods (some of which I’ve cribbed for myself), when a pair of writers pointed out (with some gently hidden, but good-natured snark) that his plan didn’t include possible acts of nature in it.
Of course, they were all correct. But that’s not the point of a long-running plan at all.
A plan is just a plan. It is, by its very nature, the one way you can pretty much guarantee your project will not actually happen. I mean, seriously here … something is guaranteed to go wrong. Something will happen in a way you did not plan. This is the way of life. So you have to realize that by planning things, you’re not attempting to actually predict anything. Nobody, including me, cares if something happens exactly as I planned it or not. What I’m attempting to do is to think about things the surround my work, and manage them in whatever way is optimal for me at the moment. I’m creating a guiding framework that will let me control the way I adjust my course when change (positive and negative) occurs.
My experience is that I miss many of my specific daily plans, but just taking time to think about my goals and jot them down makes the process an exercise in swapping out work between days due to random issues rather than because I just didn’t do something. I also find that I have to adjust my annual plan about every two months to account for new projects or slippages that occur due to life changes (or due to my optimistic planning model—yes, I admit that I often think I can get more done in the big picture than I actually do, so I sometimes need to slip my “schedule” out).
This is just fine. No one ever really beats me for missing a deadline (and in fact, even in my corporate days, the fact that I could talk with my boss weeks and months ahead of a potential schedule slip made it all work out better). Of course, I want to hit my plan or exceed it. But to me the important part of having a plan is that it helps me make wise and proper decisions that lead me to my goals—not that it act as some kind of whipping device if I don’t.
A Final Word
So, there you have one writer’s semi-insane planning process. I need to admit that I don’t really stop here. I, like many other writers, I suspect, keep fairly detailed records on how I work. On another spreadsheet (naturally), I log the hours I work every day, and the words I write or rewrite. This is how I know, for example, that I’m working easily 50+ hours a week (even though it doesn’t feel like work a lot of the time). It’s how I know I’ve done about 680,000 words of work this year so far (130K new, 550K in some form of rewrite…there’s a whole ‘nother blog post waiting to happen there).
It’s important to me to track this level of work, too. It makes me feel better to know if I’m spending my time well–and, in fact, I find that when I’m feeling uncomfortable about life in general, I can often point to my charts and graphs and see that these moments correlate strongly to times when I’m not creating many new words…which is interesting enough, eh?
Perhaps, though, that discussion can also wait on its own long and boring blog post.
A couple days ago, I found myself reading Martin Shoemaker’s blog, wherein he discussed what he’s learned over the past few years. I got to thinking about that question. I’ve been doing this for … well … a long while, now. My bibliography says I was first published in October of 1994. You can do the math.
So, what have I learned in this time?
Of course, there are the things Martin talks about: persistence, how to stop giving up, writing often. If you’ve read my blog here, you’ve seen that stuff come up a bit. But, yeah, those are kind of givens. I mean, if you’re going to make it out of the early years as a writer, that stuff is your garden variety ticket out. And I definitely like Martin’s second item, too: “don’t stop learning.” In the past, I’ve also blogged a lot about things as I learned them—a lot of specific stuff like how to think about and use story structure, the value of grammar, how to deal with information flow at both the micro and macro levels, etc., etc.
So, yeah, there’s always something to learn. But, you know what? You can say that about almost everything that has any meaning. For example, I was always learning something when I was in my string of jobs in Corporate America ™. I actually enjoyed that aspect of things quite a bit. Dealing with people means you’re never really sure of anything, and there’s always something to learn.
But still something seemed amiss.
While I liked Martin’s discussion, I got to thinking about it more deeply than those kinds of things. What, I asked myself, beyond these “basics” (ha!) have I really learned about being a writer? Seriously. It really got to me. I’ve been thinking about it since I read Martin’s post, and I think I’ve come up with the right answers. There are five of them. Five things I have learned. I will write about them here in my inimitable free-form style, and then see if I can summarize in the end (assuming I remember to, anyway).
Perhaps the most important thing I have learned is this: When I sit down to write, I need to remember that I’m making art.
Yes. That’s it. The act of writing is making art.
Perhaps you think this is a stupid statement. Maybe you don’t think writing is an art (I know people, writers even, who don’t actually think this), or maybe you take it as such a given that writing is making art that I shouldn’t have to state it. Maybe you look at my statement and just kind of scratch your head and shrug. But for me this was an important realization, so important that I have to remind myself often.
It’s this realization, for example, that led me to completely understand my next learning, which is this: Words are not important.
That’s right. Words are not important.
All right, I hear you saying. Now I know for certain that I’ve had enough of this idiot. Words are not important? To a writer? Seriously? It’s time to put this Collins dude onto “ignore mode.”
And, you’re right. But, like Martin said, I’m a writer and writers lie for a living. So, this is a lie (except for the fact that it’s also the truth). What I mean here is that I’ve learned that the words I use as a writer are only important in that they are essential to the form. They are tools like colors or the selection of oils vs. watercolor are to a painter. Or, if I can go out on a limb, a writer’s relationship to words is like that of form and stance to a dancer.
You cannot be a writer without using words, but creating words are not the point.
The point is that you’re making art—or at least trying to. You’re working your ass off to create a series of impressions and thoughts and questions and emotions inside the people who are your audience. The words are just the things you’re using to create that series of things I just laid out. In this light, I don’t want to pick the right word just for the word’s sake. I want to pick the right word because I want to control the sense or image (or whatever) that I’m planting in a reader’s mind.
It’s a fine line of a difference, but it’s a difference—and, for me, understanding that difference has been a very important thing.
The third thing I’ve spent time fretting over is the piece of transitive logic wherein I say if writing well is the hardest thing I’ve ever done (which is something I’ve often said), and if writing is making art, then making art well is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I am here today, of course, to say this isn’t correct.
Actually, what I’ve learned is that doing art is incredibly easy, as long as you can actually let yourself do it. Making art is a strange thing. It requires only that you be brave enough to actually touch the things that are inside you, then get out of the way and make them happen.
This is the point behind Amanda Palmer’s quotable quote of her song “Ukulele” (Quit the bitching on your blog, and stop pretending art is hard…), which I totally love for everything strange and wonderful about it (and which I’ll embed below).
For me, “writing” becomes “making art” when I am able to let my characters say and do what they want to, regardless of whether I would ever actually say or do these things. It’s cutting into that vein of thought and existence that lets me write characters and events that might actually scare me if other people heard them coming from my mouth. It’s not letting concern for what people might say get in the way of making my points and my views filter through the work I do—letting ugliness in characters stand as they need to stand, or allowing pain to exist, or … well … whatever.
And, sure, it’s about words. Picking the right ones to create the right images, etc. But, screw it, you know? The words only matter if they create images, ideas, and other stuff that make a difference. The words are yours, of course. But, in a very real way, so are the images. In fact, in the end, you are your art’s own first audience. If your art doesn’t speak to you, then what’s the point?
The problem, of course, is your relationship to the rest of the world.
The surest way for me to get cranky and blocked up and unhappy with my work is to reach a point where I pull back merely because I’m worried someone might not like what I’ve done, or if I reach out and touch something important to me, but then decide not to include it because it’s too personal or too sensitive, or that I might somehow be embarrassed of it. This is death to me.
This learning then gets tied up with my fourth lesson, which is this: Stories that matter are about things that are important to me, and things that are important to me—even highly positive, bright and shiny things—can feel scary at their cores.
I have to constantly remind myself to be brave here. When I write about things that are important to me, I can let my fears about how the world will judge me keep me from making art that matters.
For example, these feelings of anxiety can show up all over the place when I write “the other” or write about cultural issues. As a white male I suppose it’s only natural that I can get tied up in knots when I attempt to write from the point of view of (let’s say) an African-American female (what if I get it wrong?). These feelings of fear and doubt can come out when I write characters who are not me in a billion other ways, too, of course. I have learned that I need to face these situations straight-up, and that I have to dive into them even if they don’t feel totally like me, and even if it scares me to put them out there (or especially if it scares me to put them out there).
Which leads me to my last learning, which is this: try as you might, you cannot control what reactions you’ll create in the people who consume the art you’re making.
Everyone is different. There will be, for example, those who will listen to Amanda Palmer’s “Ukulele” (which I referenced above) and absolutely hate it. But I love it. In that same light, I’ve had had stories what received both glowing reviews, and reviews where it was clear that the reader wasn’t certain if I understood what I was doing. Lois Tilton, for example, recently reviewed my story “Tumbling Dice” in Locus in a way that I really loved, even though she was clearly antsy about the work itself. “Tumbling Dice” is essentially a re-telling of the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, so it’s gritty and unflattering to its characters. They are not particularly nice people, even though they are working their way through their lives as best they know how. While other places reviewed the story quite positively, Lois wasn’t so convinced—but even as she was rubbed the wrong way, she pegged the characters well, and apparently walked away at least feeling something off-kilter about them, which was great, in an odd way. [I am, BTW, a fan of Lois’s reviews—I’m not here to say she was wrong or inappropriate in anything she said about this, or any other story of mine.]
So, yeah. That’s what I’ve learned about writing. Five lessons. Here they are again:
1. The words aren’t really what matters
2. Writing is really about making art
3. Making art is easy, as long as you let yourself do it
4. Stories that matter are about things that are important to you
5. You cannot control how anyone reacts to the impressions you create within them
Oh, and one more thing I’ve learned—which may even be the most important thing of all. When I sum it all up, I have to admit that even now (after all these years) I can rarely ever say if anything I’ve made is “good” or not (see #5 above), but I’ve finally come to the point where I always know whether I’m proud of it.
This story is actually a bit of a favorite of mine because it came to me in what was essentially a single sitting (with another pass or two rub out some raw edges here and there). This kind of thing doesn’t happen too often with me, so I need to enjoy them when they arrive.
That said, this issue is also a favorite of mine, merely because of all the other really cool writers you’ll find inside its pages. It’s also pretty cool because you can read it for free and all that. So, uh, yeah … go forth and get to it!