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Old Gifts Never Die

Back in 1993, before I went to work in Corporate America, I worked in the civil service Navy. When I left, the command threw many parties—all of which I assumed were to honor me, though some of which may well have been for other reasons.(grin) One of the gifts that one of my co-workers gave me was a Notre Dame shirt.

The back story there is that I am, as many know, a Louisville guy. I grew up there, went to school there, and married a Louisville girl before becoming a displaced Hoosier. The guy who gave it to me was, of course a Notre Dame guy, and a guy I had gone around and around with in our good-natured kind of way. (Full disclosure: I lived in South Bend for a while, and my parents are from there. My dad is a pretty big Irish follower to this day)

I’m thinking about this now because I still have that shirt, and still wear it occasionally to sleep it (Yes, I’m frugal and apparently have very low standards in some areas—sue me … it’s a little threadbare, but it works just fine).

I decided to post it now because I thought he would get a kick out of it.

So here it is:

NDShirt

Dare to Be Good

In the middle of everything else going on, Lisa Silverthorne and I have embarked on a short story dare. For the past six weeks, each Monday we’ve alternated giving ourselves a prompt, and written stories (due midnight Sunday). This process is modeled after Heinlein’s Rules, and was advocated by Dean Wesley Smith back in the stone ages when Lisa and I were first learning. Dean (and Kris Rusch) called it “Dare to be Bad.” It was quite controversial in its day.

Sometime later, I think Mike Resnick talked to Dean about the transition to the next level, which he called “Dare to be Good” and which is an interesting topic to consider, too. There’s a different mindset to “Dare to be Good” … some of which might just get touched on below.

I’m writing this today because for the first time in our little jaunt, I was late on a deadline—I didn’t finish the story that was due last Sunday until this morning. My tardiness will not absolve me of my deadline for next week, of course. So I’ll just have to suck that up.

But it happens.

Given that we did six stories in six weeks for a recent anthology workshop and now are on this streak, I can say that while I’ve always found the act of writing a short story interesting, the act of writing a series of short stories in such a relatively short period is even more so. As they say, you never really learn how to write, but that instead you only learn how to write the story you’re working on and then you have to start all over again. I described it in a recent email to Lisa as feeling like you’re a perpetual beginner.

That said, one of the things that this 11+ story jaunt is reminding me is that a lot of what I’m fiddling with is information flow, and that there’s a lot more to basic information flow than just putting words and thoughts into a stream that makes sense. There’s a flow associated with getting to know a story. A feeling, maybe. In addition, so much of a short story’s basic structure makes a lot more sense once I’ve figured out what the piece is about (What it’s about to me, anyway. The reader is welcomed to consider what I write to be about whatever they want it to be about).

I find that I often struggle with a manuscript until I decide what a story is about, and then it often tends to come together quite quickly after that point. It is, unfortunately, more complicated than that, of course. Sometimes issues are related to characters I don’t know, or situations that are skewed some way, or knowledge I don’t have. Sometimes it’s other stuff. Sometimes it’s because I’m having a confidence meltdown.

The issue with doing anything creative, or anything uncertain is that when things go haywire, the cause could have a thousand root sources—and you feel like you have to find the exact root cause before you can make things better.

Such is life, right?

Sometimes it’s a mix of several things.

This was, for example, among the problems with the story I missed my deadline on—I didn’t really know what the story was about (or, in reality, I was changing what it was about like it was oil on a hot skillet…at various points I was writing like it was about three different things). However, I had also made a basic rookie mistake at about the 3,000 word mark, but charged on to 4,500 words and gotten myself stuck on plot points. I beat my head against that barrier for a full day until I finally stopped the insanity, threw away the 1,500 words that sucked, and ran a different direction. A day later the story was “done.”

The point that’s relevant to you, however, is that I think this is the way of all life.

So many people think they know what they are actually doing—they think there’s a process for accomplishing something, and you just sit down and do it. I ran into that all the time in Corporate America. But then you ask what happens when “X” occurs, or “Y” and you find that mostly people just kind of wing things until they work.

And if they miss a deadline, then they might have to listen to the boss bitch a bit, but they still go to work the next day and try to make it up. If you make a mistake, you just try again.

Writers, though—some writers, anyway—can get caught up in the quest for quality and get tied up into knots. They worry. They fret. It’s a double-edged blade: write fast and you’ve been told it’s going to be dreck—but slow writing is often due to the fact the you have no idea what you’re doing, and so it can make you feel incompetent, like you’ll never write a decent sentence ever again in your life. And if they hit a bump, they think the spigot is broken.

The spigot is not broken, though. Not forever. Life goes on. I fixed my problem by letting myself take a step back and look at it from a bunch of ways, but then basically just reminding myself that I can do this, diving in, and trying on ideas that felt right until I saw the light—or at least a light that I liked. And then I charged on.

That’s what I’m carrying away from this stint, though.

A reminder.

Build your craft. Trust your craft. Work as fast as you’re comfortably capable of working.

But create something you’re proud of, regardless of whether it “sells” or not, create something you’re proud of.

You’re capable of more than you might think you are.

And, in the end, if you hit a snag—a real snag … a thing where when you look at something you think it’s truly garbage, then sure, give yourself permission to blow a deadline, and go back. But don’t let the fact that you missed a deadline keep you from hitting the next.

Or enjoying the process.

So, yeah, Dare to be Bad: leap into this big goal of a story a week. Have fun. If you write something that doesn’t work, it’s not a big deal. But Dare to Be Good, too: if you know something isn’t working, give it room to breathe until you can do something you’re proud of.

It’s all so simple right?

Cover Reveal!

As I’ve mentioned, the the cool folks at the Uncollected Anthology invited me to play in their urban fantasy sandbox this quarter. This has been outstanding fun because it led me to write in a sub-genre I’ve often read but never really attempted before–yes, my friends, Ron Collins took his shot at playing with the fae.

The result was “The Bridge to Fae Realm,” which is a very long novella (nearly a short novel). As you might expect, and as you might be able to tell from the cover below, my fae aren’t exactly your old-school fae–which is probably why the danged story kept growing, and threatens to grow even further.

Full publication will happen May 1 (yes, this Sunday!).

You, however, get to take an peek at the cover today. I’m terribly excited by it, and hope you will be, too. One friend of mine called it “freaky beautiful,” and another called it “a kick-ass cover … absolutely first-rate.” Your mileage is allowed to vary, just not by much! It’s built around the photography of Karolina Ryvolová, an artist from the Czech Republic who clearly has more than her fair share of eye-grabbing creativity and a eye for the dramatic.

I hear ya, though … enough with the blather. Show me the danged cover!

All right, already … here it is:

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Collins-Bridge cover1-600-900

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Yes, totally gorgeous, right?

I will, of course let you know more as the days march on.

Purple Rain

So, yeah. Prince.

I know. He did stuff before Purple Rain and a whole lot of stuff after Purple Rain. He was more than his music.

But I want to talk about Purple Rain because … well …

I’ve always had this weird relationship to Prince and his music. If you’re reading this on my site, you can tell from my picture that I’m a white guy of an age to be around when he was bursting onto the scene. This meant that my real introduction to him was primarily through MTV and songs like “1999” and “Little Red Corvette”. I can add that I was in the middle (or toward the end) of growing up in Louisville, Kentucky—in other words, somewhere around the Mason Dixon line. I went to middle school in an all white public district, but when I went to high school I was lucky enough to be among the first group of kids to be bused to an integrated high school. By the time Prince was getting noticed I was in college, though.

I remember seeing (and hearing) “1999” and thinking it was an okay pop song, but seeing (and hearing) “Little Red Corvette” as something … more. Sure, it was sexual, what pop song isn’t eh? But it was clearly more overt than most. And it was bigger in ways I could feel but that I never thought to analyze back then. Looking at it now, you can see how it all works together, how the piece is about sex, yes, but it’s about what it means to be young and know you’re naïve, but not be able to do a damned thing about it except charge ahead and figure it out on the run. The sound is hollow and distant in places that accentuate the point, the production coarse and sharp at others. The look of the video is lush—pure Prince, of course. Prince’s performance, too … I mean … it was like David Bowie on Viagra, except Viagra hadn’t been invented, yet.

And the poetry. Geez Louise … go Google the lyrics. Read them and (assuming you’ve heard the song) do your best to block the music that will inevitably come into your head. The pictures they can create are remarkable. “Little Red Corvette” sounds like a lewder version of something Bruce Springsteen might have penned.

The whole thing—the package of it all—is a tightrope act, perfectly balanced.

In retrospect, this is the song that first turned my head Prince’s way.

But, and I need to say this, there were problems.

How to put it politely. Okay. Well. There is no way to put it politely, so let me just charge ahead.

As I remember that time, young men I ran with were quite culturally split on whether it was “acceptable” to be a fan of Prince, and I ran with a wide array of folks so I ran into all of the groups. The cliques were all there. I mostly hung with the Stones/Beatles/Who folks, (who I related to well). There were the Zep, Aerosmith, Bad Company 70s metal/rock folks. There were the Lou Reed/VU punkers, the Doors guys, and the southern rockers.

You might note that none of these cultures are folks you immediately connect to either the music or anything else about Prince—especially in the 80s. Since I wasn’t big into creating conflict, mostly I just shut my trap at times. But the full truth is that I wasn’t sure who Prince was at all, so even if I could have pretended to be enlightened, I probably wouldn’t have known what to say about him. The closest comparison was Bowie or maybe James Brown, but even those were way off.

I don’t want to overstate any of this. I don’t want this to be all about where I came from—but, of course, it was about culture to a degree and it would be disingenuous of me to leave out the extreme angst that Prince’s work caused in some of the circles I ran with. It was a confusing time—as they all are—and a culture’s art is important to it. I belonged to the young, white male culture, and the lines of inclusion weren’t as oft-tread then as they are now. It was, for example, not particularly cool for some people to like Fleetwood Mac [too girly], or Peter Frampton [too girly], or Dan Fogelberg [too girly] … perhaps you get the drift.

Regardless, Prince was well beyond the edge of both the ethnic and androgyny lines for acceptance in some of the gangs I hung with (repeat on the some).

So, I enjoyed some of what Prince did in the early days, but I didn’t really pay him much attention one way or the other. What he was wasn’t as obvious to me at the time.

Then came Purple Rain (which I am listening to again as I write this).

Sweet Jesus.

It wasn’t just the title song. Every piece was startling. Lisa and I had met by then and we got that album, and we both played the crap out of it. It’s brilliant. Where the movie is bloatware, the album is surgical. Where the movie is over-wrought, the album is comprehensive in its focus on youth and love and the desire to be something important, to want to love something, to want to understand what it means to be alive.

Side One: “Let’s Go Crazy” (poppy, dance-y, but with a sharp-edged guitar that spoke of what was coming as Prince gathered the kids around to talk about This Thing Called Life), “Take Me With U” (a little sweet for my tastes, but more interesting on many listens), “The Beautiful Ones” (perhaps one of the most under-rated pieces here, a story of longing so pure as to overwhelm the ability to deal with it), “Computer Blue” (lyrically simple, but musically complex, in which things go wrong), and then closing with the notorious “Darling Nikki” (which you really don’t have to be a Rhodes scholar to get, right?)

The entire first side was something any young person on the face of the earth could listen to and understand somewhere deep inside them. It was a brilliant opening. All alone, it would be ear-popping.

Then we get to Side Two.

“When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die For U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” and then, of course, the title song.

The first three run us through the story. They build off the angst of side one to allow a guy to come to some tenuous, uneasy essence of what it might mean to be a real person, achieving real things, and being someone who is true to oneself as well as others. Each piece is, alone, artistically interesting. But the three together carve a path that makes them important to be seen together. In that way, they stand as testimony to the idea that the album as an art form should always exist.

Finally, there’s “Purple Rain.”

I remember driving to a store or somewhere all by myself. We lived in Louisville, and it was a warm day. I arrived at a fairly empty parking lot when the title song came on the radio, and I decided to just sit there while it played. The song was huge. Monstrous. Pulsing with every emotion you deal with in this thing called life. As I heard it, the rest of the album dropped into my head. Is the song pretentious? Maybe. Okay, sure. But that’s what art is at its core, isn’t it? Pretentious, presumptuous, and impossible to dismiss.

Then Prince played his guitar—unleashing perhaps one of the most amazing solos ever recorded.

By itself, “Purple Rain” is iconic. In context of the story told in the album, it’s heartrendingly beautiful. If you let it, the ideas behind this album will bring you to your knees, and it’s this song that makes it do that.

That day, when the song was over, I shut of the radio and for several minutes I just sat in my car.

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I don’t want to over-state this. I don’t want to be too hyperbolic.

An artist can only do so much without the help of the person who is their audience, and the moment around that person—but there are some artists that change everything. As I look back on that time of my life, I don’t think it’s going too far to say that I never really looked at the world exactly the same way after Purple Rain.

I only wish I would have realized it more fully at the time.

What do you do about piracy?

A writer buddy of mine asked me what I do about piracy.

In that conversation, he said he was thinking about changing his release approach to address possible loss of sales (putting print out before ebooks, etc.). DRM is a weak protection, he said (which is true). In a lot of ways publishing, and indie publishing in particular, can feel like you’re sitting in a leaky lifeboat and watching the sharks circle.

This reminded me that I had planned on posting my own piracy statement here. So that’s what I’ll do at the end of this note.

Piracy is, of course, a pretty big deal at the end of the day. But, it’s also a question that comes up a lot when I talk to newer writers and almost never when I’m with people who already write for a living. Some of that difference is almost certainly a factor of experienced writers being okay with the fact that you can still swim in an ocean if has sharks. Some of that difference is probably that traditional authors have their publisher’s legal folks to help them. Some of that difference is probably that a lot of indie publishers have already started to use “free” as effective marketing approaches, so they’ve bucketed the threat that these pirates have in a different way than others.

I should start, though, with my own personal “mission statement,” as it were: All I’m really trying to do is write stories that matter, and develop a loyal following.

That’s it. So every time I take effort away from those two things, I’m probably losing something.

I should also say that I do not publish my own work under DRM. I also give a lot of my work away for free at times.

Also, it’s good to note that my basic make-up (hence, my approach and policy) says that a truly loyal following will appreciate my work and be willing to pay for it in the end, even if they can’t afford it right now. I intend to write good books for a lot of years, and I want readers to enjoy the act of paying for them (which most actually do). Sometimes, that means I get to enjoy giving them away for free—but when I do, it’s always with the idea that I’m going to benefit in the end. Think win-win, you know? Most people believe creators “deserve” to get paid for their work.

Finally, as a traditionally published short story writer, and an indie publisher of longer works, I have a very limited legal staff. [grin] This means that I am both financially and time strapped when it comes to fending off the sharks. It means I need to focus on priorities (hence, when in doubt, get thee back to the mission statement).

I realize, however, that I’m a person, so my mind can change. This is how I feel today…but it’s how I’ve felt for some time, so I doubt it will change too much. Shrug.

I find that keeping all of this in mind is helpful when I think about piracy, because, while I get my ego hurt when someone gets something from me for free that I didn’t offer them directly, for the most part it allows me to mostly let it go and focus on the game I’m playing rather than divert a lot of energy into places that don’t move me forward.

With that out of the way, let me get to my thoughts and base policy regarding pirates themselves—which I tend to split into three different groups:

Publishing pirates
“Information wants to be free” pirates
“Can’t afford to pay anything” pirates

Publishing Pirates:

Publishing pirates are the people who steal my work and put it on sites where they either make it available to people for free or sell it without paying me. Of the three groups, these people are the most annoying. They are breaking copyright law by both creating copies of my work, and distributing it—and are generally profiting from it by either direct sales or pushing advertisement. So, yeah, it’s bothersome. If I find one, I’ll drop them a note requesting they take the book down (and perhaps threatening legal action). There are also writer’s organizations that can help. But there are a gazillion of these, and only one of me, so there’s a time/dollar cost/benefit thing that needs to be run.

I’m also of the opinion that, at my current level of success, these people are only hurting me a little. And I’m aware there does exist a philosophical (and insupportable) argument that they could even be helping me a bit. Regardless, it is clear they are breaking copyright law because I had zero involvement in their action, so that upsets me.

So, yes, I know there are some people ripping me off. I’ll do my best to fight them when, like a whack-a-mole arcade game, they pop up. But I don’t go out of my way to find them or worry about them. I choose not to get too tied up into this at present because that way lies mental anguish beyond the cost/benefit study. Perhaps if I get bigger I’ll change my attitude.

Information Wants to Be Free Pirates:

The Information Wants to Be Free pirates are the most interesting of the groups. These are either a form of publishing pirate (if they actually distribute the work), or a reader with a self-serving streak or a warped … uh … view of life? … relative to mine. I kind of admire this group, though. Their passion is commendable. Those who are publishing my work under this category meet all the criteria of the above category (including the fact that they are breaking copyright law), and if I find one I’ll take the same kinds of actions.

The readers in this category, however, are different. First, they are completely impossible for me to reach out and stop. So, until I hear other ideas, my reaction is to ignore them. Second, they are not readers that I care to attract because they are withholding payment for philosophical (political?) reasons. They do not care to support the writer—or, maybe better put, they think that writers should be able to find other ways to eat and shelter themselves (I guess?). In my opinion, these readers are not particularly sharp, but they would probably respond by saying that they just don’t value the same things as I do. That way lay the conversation fodder of all politics, eh?

These readers don’t help me, but in the end neither do they hurt me (Though technically I suppose some do. Nothing is stranger to me than a person who steals a book, and then writes a negative review).

Like I say, though, as a general statement I admire the passion that’s in this group. I think these people are wrong, but I get it. Heck, there’s some chance that when I was much younger I would have felt that way, too. And since (rightly or wrongly) I have a mental picture of most of them being 15-25 years old and progressing up the maturity curve, I expect that most will grow out of it. So my basic approach to this IWTBF reader is to speak to them about the realities of the publishing world in hopes their views will “mature,” and move on.

Can’t Afford to Pay Anything Pirates

This is the group my personal policy is going to actively address.

To a very small degree I’ve been there. Yes, I had a very comfortable upbringing, but the truth is I can definitely remember what it felt like to be working a low-paying job for a few hours a week. I remember going to bargain bins to buy used records instead of the newest releases. And, yes, I fully admit that rather than buy an album I really wanted but didn’t have the money for, I might have (on occasion) made a cassette or two from music that friends had. It’s not too hard to take that memory of desire and angst I felt at those times, and amplify it to apply to what’s happening to people today.

I hate the idea that someone might have to look at one of my books and truly feel that they have to decide whether paying $4.99 (or whatever) for it will make them have to change what they plan to eat for lunch that day. And, yet, I want this person as a loyal reader—I want them to love my work so much that someday when their finances are stronger they enjoy the idea of supporting me, perhaps even because I supported them.

So, here’s my basic piracy policy: If you are in that situation, if the idea of spending the price of a book gives you that ugly feeling down in the pit of your stomach, and that is driving you to go to the pirate sites for free books, send me a note (ron*at*typosphere.com) telling me what book you want. Unless I am contractually constrained otherwise, I’ll gladly provide you one.

Other writers may not agree with me at all, and what works for me may well not work for you. Other writers may have more resources available to them to fight things. Pirates may be hurting other writers more than they hurt me (or I may be misguided and they may be stealing so much that I could afford that yacht I need to keep the sharks away … uh, have I mentioned that I moved to Arizona?).

As I said before, I retain the right to change my mind.

But those are all my thoughts and policies toward the idea of piracy as of April, 2016.

Any thoughts are, of course, welcome.

“Really” “felt” the “was”

Wherein Ron shows you some of his not so tricky tricks on how he makes his prose “better” and proves it with (of course) data … ’cause, I’m a numbers nerd at heart, you know?

Today I’m going to use the 27K novella (*) I’ve recently finished to discuss a few “simple” things one can do to shore up their micro-prose.

(*) The work in question is an urban fantasy titled “The Bridge to Fae Realm.” It should be available on or about May 1 as part of the Uncollected Anthology project. Stay tuned!

I’ll start by saying that I’m a very big proponent of fast writing—meaning that I encourage people to break whatever barrier they have to just sitting down and making words happen. Yes, sometimes those words don’t work. I often throw away a lot of words. But I almost always find the stories I draft in quick burst are much stronger than the stories I struggle over. There are exceptions, of course, but just go with me on this—I’ve been fiddling with my “process for a quarter century. I know me pretty well by now. [grin]

However, I’ve also learned that when I write quickly, I often let my prose fall into flabby patterns. You know what I mean: weak or passive sentence structures, generic word choices, and reliance on words that filter the story rather than tell it. Since I know these things about myself, I try to make my “last” pass through a manuscript be one where I specifically look for three indicators that suggest I may have missed opportunities to make my micro writing better.

These three things are:

1. The word “felt”
2. The notorious “ly” endings
3. Clustering of the use of “was” and other forms of the verb “to be”

Let me show you directly what I mean.

CASE 1: THE WORD “FELT”

My “final” manuscript weighed in at 27,127 words (115 double-spaced manuscript pages). I did a search on the word “felt” and found 46 of them. When I reviewed those 46 cases, I decided that 23 of them (fully half) were simple filtering that represented missed opportunities for making the reader’s experience better.
Here’s a fairly simple example:

Original: He wanted to pull away from her, but he felt pursuit from something he couldn’t see, and suddenly he was thinking…

Final: He wanted to pull away from her, but the raw fear of pursuit from something he couldn’t see made him flash on…

The astute of you might find that I resolved an “ly” in that example, too. Now, I’m sure other writers would do something different. That’s what makes us who we are, right? But the point I want to make here is that by using word “felt” in that sentence I was relying upon the reader to insert her own idea of what my character was feeling. The pressure of pursuit, after all, can carry many nuanced forms, “raw fear” being only one of them. I note, though, that when I fell upon the specific of “raw fear” it also helped me roll out the rest of the sentence.

Bottom line, though, Before my review I had 46 cases of the word “felt,” and afterward I had 23. The modifications I made in these adjustments added about 100 words, and in each case made the situation more vivid and appropriate to what I’m trying to accomplish with the passage.

CASE 2: “LY ENDINGS”

Like I think most writers do, I work hard while I’m drafting to keep these prose weakeners out of my work even in first drafts. But they are insidious little buggers. When I searched for “ly” in my final manuscript I found 328 of them. Wow. Almost three per page. Of course, that counts real words like “fly,” so it’s not a true count. But still, I’m always a bit sheepish when I look at a manuscript that I think has been written with moderately strong prose and find this kind of … well … weakness.

You get the drill by now. I went back and examined each case of “ly” to decide whether I was missing an opportunity to make my work better. As a result, I dumped 137 of them (leaving me with 181 cases of “ly” in the final manuscript. The rewrites as a whole added about 75 words (but to be honest, the corrective action for many of these was just to remove the offending words—which for me are often the words “really” and “actually” … which I tend to use like others might use “literally”)

Here’s another fairly simple example:

Original: The moon shined on them so strongly it made Jon remember …

Final: The stark moonlight reminded Jon …

Five words instead of eleven, which is much easier to read, and which is important at that time of the story because tensions are high and I want the reader running as hard as my characters are. In addition, I hope you’ll agree that the picture of “stark moonlight” is much more visceral than “shined on them so strongly.”

CASE 3: CLUSTERING OF “WAS”

This is a more sensitive one for me—or a more subjective one, at least. Maybe. As those around me know, I’m an engineer, not a linguist (smile). All I really worry about here is the fact that when I use the word “was” in clusters, I’m often bogging the story down and I’m often taking the voice of the piece away from my characters.

So when I search on “was” or other forms of the strange little verb “to be,” I’m really mostly interested in places where I see big clusters. I’ll take the time to resolve others, too, of course, but after having done this on a few manuscripts I tend to look at them almost more from the perspective of pacing than anything else.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Original:
Jon sighed. This was too damned crazy.

It wasn’t fair. Really, it wasn’t. He had finally got his act together after dealing with all the shit from his mom, who made his life hell before drinking herself to death, and after dealing with the fallout of his own goddamned stupidity. He was finally figuring it out. He had a job, now. He was paying his rent. And on top of that, he had the music thing that was at least halfway happening even if it would never wind up anywhere near where he had once planned it.

Sure, he was living paycheck to paycheck, but at least he had that much.

Final:
Jon sighed. This was too damned crazy.

It wasn’t fair. He had finally got his act together after dealing with the fallout of his own goddamned stupidity, and after dealing with all the shit from his mom, who had made his life hell before drinking herself to death. He was figuring it out. He had a job now. He paid his rent. And on top of that, the music thing was at least halfway happening even if it would never wind up anywhere near where he wanted it to.

Sure, he lived paycheck to paycheck, but at least he had that much.

Again, another writer might have done something different, but this is what I did. It dropped wordcount by just under 10%, and streamlined a cluster of seven “was” constructs down to four. Arbitrary? Maybe you think so, but by looking at these things and actually thinking about them I can tell you why I chose to keep what I did.

That makes me happy.

For this manuscript, I started with 536 instances of “was,” and I ended with 401—an “improvement” in 135 cases.

FINAL ANALYSIS:

If you’re with me this far, well, I’m impressed. But the bottom line for me here is always to step back and ask myself if I made the manuscript better. In this case (as with pretty much all of them, right?) I think that answer is a resounding yes. I’ve got a story and a presentation I’m proud of, which is the part I can control.

Of course, the real test happens after a story gets published—because at the end of the day it’s always the reader who gets the last say.

Workload and the Writer

So, yeah … remember that thing about how quitting the day job to write full time will help with the work load? Not happening. This writing gig, it turns out, is just about the same as any project-oriented corporate job I’ve ever had—the multitude of projects overlap forever, and the base skillset for “surviving” is to figure out which issues to freak out over right now and which to freak out about later …which, in writer reality, means finding ways to be okay with not doing all the other things I really know I need to be doing as I go along (which in the role of being an indie publisher, is pretty much a bottomless pit of tasks … Yes, my brain says, I need to do All the Things).

In all seriousness, the sensation can be a real problem if you’re like me.

This is because I feed off achievement. I like to see things getting done. Back in the days when I was working to develop technology, I used to tell people that I didn’t really care what I did or what I worked on—I could work in a bread factory for all that mattered, as long as I had goals and deadlines. This is probably technically a lie, but it’s got that truthiness about it that is so in vogue right now.

If you’re of a psychological makeup like mine, and you find yourself with a glut of creative projects that are all kind of at the middle of their existence, you can be in for some real discomfort. Creative projects that are in the middle of their existence always feel squishy, you see? The “deadlines” are different, and the fact that they have a creative element to them makes these projects petulant. Sometimes these infantile little creatures seem to alternate between screaming at you for pushing them too hard and laughing at you for pretending you know when they’ll be done.

Over the past three weeks, for example, I’ve been juggling the following projects:

• An urban fantasy novella that has grown like a sea monkey and is due to launch May 1, he says, sneaking a sly pre-announcement announcement into the mix. (Seriously … I’m done! 27K words is it, I say. Anything else goes into a Book 2, he says, making a potentially sly pre-pre announcement).
• Two short-short stories
• A 5K contemporary fantasy short story
• One 7K+ word short story that’s in collaboration with John Bodin (yes, be prepared for 6 Days in May, available at book dealers near you soon!)
• A final pass rewrite of a 40+K short SF novel that will be book 1 of a 5 book series.
• A new short story I’m committed to write for a short story in a week dare cycle I’m doing with Lisa Silverthorne, due Sunday night but still sitting there only with my mischievously chuckling prompt sitting on the page.

And those are just the items related to word creation.

If you’re an indie publisher—which I am for my longer work—there’s more. A lot more.

In my case, that “more” has included all the support processes for launching the projects related to bullet item 1 and 4 above: things like cover design, copy editing, interstitial creation, developing what I’ll laughably call “marketing plans” and all the other stuff it takes to make something I’m going to be proud of in the end. Since I don’t actually do all that work myself (why, yes, that is my wife over there in the corner laughing her behind off at the idea of me copy editing my own work, why do you ask?), and since I often use beta readers, this also means I’m juggling these projects around a lot of “dead time” waiting for other people. Which, of course, has its own form of passive-aggressive stress.

Oh, and don’t forget submitting stories to traditional short story markets.

Gotta keep all the irons in the fire, right?

Anyway, as I’m writing this, I’m sitting here on the back patio thinking about what I have to do and remembering my friends at the day job. When they heard I was leaving to be a full time bohemian, they basically asked what a writer does all day, thinking (I’m sure) about how cushy it all sounded. And, you know, I get it. Been there, done that, still watching it unfold before my very eyes at times. Life in corporate Anywhere can be really high-paced and really high pressure.

But this writing gig isn’t any less hard. It’s a hell of a lot of work. And, yes, it is stressful, too. Have I mentioned how all this work I’ve done is essentially unpaid until the market decides if it’s worth the notorious cup of Starbucks or not? No pressure, though. Just get that novella done, all right? (full disclosure, I am not the usual writer. I am insanely lucky to be financially secure enough to take this kind of “risk” without having any real concern about needing to pay for dinner tomorrow–so, for me that financial tightrope is only scary in the normal human way, not the Please Keep Me Safe way).

But in the end what this job doesn’t have is that meeting where you sit down with the boss and listen to him or her tell you what to do.

So, yeah. I can handle that part pretty well.

The challenge, however, is to remind myself to step back and take a look at the mountains every now and again. When I do that, this job really doesn’t suck.

The truth of the matter, though, is that I could say that even back when I was in the corporate pit, too. So I suppose you can take from this what you will.

In the meantime, just in case you need it today here’s a mountain to look at. Complete with moon.

mountain-moon

Uncollected Anthology Podcast

I’m a few days late dropping this, but I saw the Uncollected Anthology folks did a pretty cool little podcast with Mark-the-Kobo-guy (grin) a bit ago. As I noted before, (*) I’ll be their May issue guest, so I thought you might enjoy hearing the leaders of the band talk about it for a bit. The podcast was actually recorded during the last coast workshop, and discusses what those workshops are like, too…so you get a double bump for your money!

Here’s a link.

More news on this very cool project coming soon.

* And, yeah, my story wound up a 20K word novella.

Check out KEXP …

I listen to a lot of music while I write. Today I tied into KEXP.org’s Youtube channel.

<< insert standard speech about how music … or anything else … was so much better when I was a kid, that kids today can’t play instruments, that it’s all … whatever it all is >>

Here are three interesting and brilliant sessions that prove those arguments … inappropriate. *

Start with any of them, and just let the chain roll. You could do a lot worse than just setting it on KEXP and running through them all.

(*) I suggest that “problem” for a lot of us older fogeys who think we need to get our music off the radio, is that you don’t find the good stuff there no more—if ever it was really there to begin with. [grin]

Kobo makes Hidden in Crime free to you!

Get a copy of Fiction River: Hidden in Crime, complete with my Derringer nominated story “The White Game”, FOR FREE at Kobo!

1) Go to the link above
2) Click “ADD TO CART” then go to your shopping cart
3) If you don’t have an existing Kobo account, enter your payment info (or, select PayPal option to avoid having to enter a credit card)
4) Enter promo code HIDDENFREE and click APPLY (this will discount the book to 100% off)
5) Complete the purchase and enjoy. And don’t forget to leave a review! Either on Kobo or Amazon or Goodreads – anywhere!

“The White Game” Makes the Derringer Short List

READ “THE WHITE GAME” FOR FREE

Thanks to the very fine folks at WMG Publishing you can read “The White Game” for free for the next several days. It’s a story I was particularly proud of even before this nomination, so I’m happy to see it available for wider readership.

Leave it to me to be away from the keyboard the week that one of my stories is provided such a high honor as to be nominated as a finalist for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2016 Derringer Award. Yes, that’s right. “The White Game” has made the short list for this remarkably nice award. You can push me over with the wind of a feather’s wave. I am quite pleasantly gobsmacked. Are there more ways to gush?

I should note that the Short Mystery Fiction Society was created 20 years ago in order to help highlight short mystery and crime fiction.It currently has over 1,600 members. You can read more about it, and even consider joining (it’s free!) here.

As you might suspect from the cover I clipped to this post, this story appeared in last November’s Hidden in Crime edition of Fiction River, which was edited by Kristine Katheryn Rusch. This is a very cool series of anthologies that provides regular doses of high quality fiction from a lot of very fine authors in multiple genres. Obviously, I highly recommend a subscription.

I shall stop now before I make too much of a fool of myself.

It has clearly, however, been a very good week. [grin]

How about 30% off “Saga”

We interrupt this ridiculously comical presidential campaign to let you know that you can get the entire Saga of the God-Touched Mage series (yes, all eight volumes in one great package!) at Kobo for 30% off through the weekend. How do you achieve this momentous deal? How to you acquire such vast and bounteous treasure?

Glad you asked.

Just use Promo Code 30Feb when you go to checkout!


And for a double dose of Collins fiction, you might pick up a copy of Brigid’s Singer in the same deal. It’s book one of her very solid fantasy series (hint, hint, book 3 may be available soon, so if you like Singer, you can also grab Book 2, The Southern Dragon).

Free Kesha, and other contractual thoughts

If you’re a writer, I think you should be paying attention to the story surrounding Kesha and her contract.

I think it’s a big deal, and I want to take a few moments to discuss it. However, since I am a male, and since this has to do with sexual abuse, I think have to address that aspect first. And, since I assume that not all folks who wander over here will really understand the context, I feel the need to summarize the basic situation briefly (and probably way too simply) by stating these things:

1. Kesha is the pop singer who was known as Ke$ha some time back.
2. She sings stuff that a lot of folks like, but I admit I am not really one of those people. This is fine. You don’t need to be a big fan to discuss the situation. I am not going to pretend to be all pop-culturally savvy here. I am not.
3. She hasn’t put much music out lately, because she’s been too busy suing Sony, her record company, in an attempt to get out of her contract because she says her manager, and not coincidentally, the owner of the record company’s label she works with, has been sexually abusing her for … well … a lot of years. She’s also made it understood that he has not given her the reins to make the kinds of music she wants to make, and has body shamed her into eating disorders. Predictably, it just gets uglier and uglier from there.
4. Late last week, an injunction on her case was not granted, meaning she has to either work for SONY, or not work.
5. This has created a huge flurry of social media from many people in and around the industry.

Bottom line: Google “Kesha” and you’ll find a gazillion better summaries than I just gave you.

I don’t really want to talk about the sexual harassment element of this case, because these things are beyond my ability to adequately comprehend. But I feel like in order to talk about the rest of it—purely the contractual stuff going on (which no one else seems to be focusing on)—I need to address an opinion on the nature of her allegations.

So, let me say that I believe her manager almost certainly took horrifying advantage of her, and that in a just world she would be out of her contract with him. That phrasing “out of her contract with him” is actually more important than it may seem at first glance, but I want to start there.

Yes, there is a (very small) chance that Kesha has made it all up, a small chance that she’s merely playing with the situation in hopes of squeezing a bigger payday out of her contract. But (1) based purely on numbers it is massively more likely that she’s telling the truth and that her manager is a complete scum ball, (2) if that’s the case, there is no way our legal system should force her to fulfill a contract with an abusive client, and (3) it goes almost without saying that the risk/gamble of faking such a situation isn’t particularly wise. After all, SHE’S GOT A DEAL, you know? If she’s not telling the truth, she’s taking a huge risk in fighting against someone who has a helluva lot of power to use against her.

So, yes, I believe that in a fair world, Kesha would be free to make a new deal today because I believe her when she says she was abused. I believe that in the end, she will be found to be justified and that she will eventually win. That is my opinion. It completely sucks, and as a male I find it outright embarrassing, that women are still finding themselves in this position in 2016.

But what I want to focus on right now is that contract itself, and how that contract should make us as writers pay attention to what’s going on around us.

Thing is, since everyone is so busy focusing on the abuse angle, it took me most of a day’s worth of scurrying around to determine what her contract problem really is. When you take this effort, though, a few things become more “clear.” Bottom line: it’s a mess. For example, did you know that her problem is actually an intersection of three separate contracts? One contract (signed when she was 18), is effectively with her manager, the second is between her manager and Sony, which is NOT actually a recording contract, but essentially a services deal, and the third is between Sony and Kemosabe, the Sony label that her manager runs.

All of these three deals together essentially put Kesha into a situation that, abuse or not, leave her at the whim of her manager. He can control what she does as a professional to a degree that few people truly understand, and (again, abuse aside) it appears to be completely legal. The fact that Kesha is suing to get out of that deal (again, abuse or none), suggests to me that it not only appears to be completely legal that her manager can control her, but that this most certainly is what her contract allows her manager to do. To make matters worse, this deal apparently puts her in a situation where she owes at least SIX albums to fulfill her obligations.

Six. I mean … holy shit. That’s a lot of music. And in the lifespan of the average female pop star in today’s world, that seems to me to be just about a lifetime deal.

First things first: this sucks.

Second things second: but still, she signed the deal.

Third things third: the judge in the case says these are fairly standard deals—meaning that a LOT of artists are tied into these kinds of contracts, and if true, every one of them runs the risk of being locked into doing whatever the owner of the contract wants them to do for a very long time.

Poe, another female singer, had contractual problems of a similar but not identical nature, but apparently without the sexual abuse elements. Her issues cost her a decade of her career, and us a decade of what could have been some remarkable work. I am, you might garner, a bigger fan of Poe’s work than Kesha’s … but that fact has nothing to do with the fact that both of them got themselves into contractual binds that threaten to kill their careers.

So, I hear you…what does this have to do with writers? Recording deals are different than writing contracts.

Well, maybe. But maybe not so much.

Let’s pretend for a minute that the abuse did not happen. All right? For just a moment, let’s assume that Kesha’s accusations fall into the 2% (give or take) of such things, and that her accusations of abuse are falsely made. That means that she’s either doing it for the potential of more money (which assumes her future deal would pay her a heck of a lot more), or she’s doing it because she can’t stomach the crap her manger is telling her to sing. Or both, I suppose. Just as important, if her record company decided to not put out the albums, I suppose she’s still required to present the material in order to fulfill the contract.

And until that time, she’s landlocked.

To be blunt, this is, effectively, what traditional publishing companies have worked hard to do with writers for a long time. It is their business to squeeze as much out of writers as they can (why wouldn’t they, I suppose). They want to lock the writer into situations where they have to write what the publishing company wants them to write. And when you add in the idea of the agent, you have the same basic dynamic that Kesha finds herself in—except that Kesha is triple screwed because her “agent” also runs the “imprint” that she records for under the contract she has with the parent company.

Her career is in the clutches of her agent/producer/record company, and if they want her to play the pop ingénue forever, or whatever, she pretty much needs to do it. They decide. Poe, for example, was able to skirt her issues to a small degree by recording a few things under different names, but for all intents and purposes, she could not record under her stage name. She had signed away the ability to decide what her art was going to be. Kesha is in a similar situation.

I’ve been around the business for a couple decades now. I’ve signed a lot of contracts for short stories (which are considerably less complicated than novels). I’ve dealt with film options (which are more complicated than short stories, but generally less complicated than novels). I’ve been unlucky enough, however, to not deal with big publishers on novel contracts. I’ve done all my novel length work as an indie/small press publisher. But, yes, know several writers who have been in such ugly situations where they’ve lost control of their careers due to deals they’ve fully agreed to with publishers/agents, and due to a lack of knowledge about how the business worked (or worse, back in the day, due to the fact that they knew how the business worked, but that there was no other way that they could see to keep their careers going).

When your agent/publishing company/record company owns you, you’re at their whim.

That’s just the fact.

To my ability to understand, this thing with Kesha is exhibit A of what can happen when you sign a particularly crappy contract—and it’s also exhibit A of what the publishing world (and music world for that matter) operated like prior to the existence of independent publishing. Her deal is, once again, apparently a fairly standard deal for the traditional music industry.

And that’s why writers should pay attention to the situation Kesha finds herself in.

Even if one discounts the sensational allegations (which one should not), this is one truly smelly situation.

Now, I fully admit that I would love to make a deal with a bigger publisher sometime because they bring things to the table that are a lot of work for me. But I don’t feel any great need to do that, and I won’t do it unless the situation is favorable. I want to own my stuff, so if it screws up, it’s my fault.

And, luckily, we have options today.

Very good options. Options where we can control everything that happens to us (within the limits of anyone’s ability to determine what happens to us in anything that resembles an artistic endeavor, anyway). We do not need to sign a deal that puts our creative control in someone else’s hands. And, to be blunt, any deal that stops a person from in good faith making the art they want to make is a dangerous deal, indeed.

Sometimes you just never know

I sat down a couple weeks ago to write a story for the Uncollected Anthology project—which is a really cool publication process run by a collection (an “uncollection?”) of really great writers. When I sat down to write this story, I figured it was a 4,000 word short story. Then I did some research and decided it would be much better as a nice, crisp 6,000 worder.

I started to put it together, and decided that no, it was clearly a 9,000 word short novelette. Then one of the characters took a bit of a flip, and a new story blip arrived, and I figured it would top itself out at 12,000.

This afternoon it sits at essentially 11,000 words and appears to be on its way to at least 14,000. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m committing novella.

This is the thing about some projects.

You just never know where they are going to go.

Lisa-blue

The Horror Genre & Toni Morrison

As result of a workshop we’ll be going to soon, Brigid and I were recently talking about the horror genre, and some of the difficulties it has. Specifically, we were talking story structure, and how the key to the genre is handling the root of the terror–the “monster” as it were. I posited in that discussion that stories in the genre were often not traditional stories when it comes to their structure, that stories in the horror genre were often written primarily just to reveal the depths of the big bad thing rather than to tell a tale, and that once this big bad thing was revealed the “story” was done and the “validation” began.

I should say that I am no expert on the genre. I’m not deeply read in it, and I’m 100% certain that you can find examples of great horror being written today. But I think it’s fair to say that the great horror being written today has a lot of undertow to fight against.

Brigid, for her part agreed in general to my view, saying something like: “Once the monster is revealed, I get a lot less scared.”

Against this conversation comes a great piece written by Grady Hendrix at Tor.com regarding Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the horror field‘s reluctance to embrace it.

It’s a good read for the insider and the fan alike. And it’s something worth thinking about from all directions. I was particularly taken with the juxtaposition of the genre’s present state of playing with its tropes as a foundation vs. Morrison’s focus on the individual and the sense of terror that springs from the things we do. I’m not suggesting one thing is better than the other–though I’ll admit I personally enjoy reading stories written from Morrison’s viewpoint better than the other. But I do think there is value in understanding the difference between the two. Morrison’s viewpoint is probably harder to write, and it’s certainly harder to read (meaning it makes one become introspective in the process of consuming it rather than be more of an outside observer).

I also appreciate that Hendrix spends a moment looking at the content and the social viewpoint of something like Morrison’s work in that its content forces us to look at things that we don’t always want to look at. This is a quandary.

It’s actually a quandary that we’re seeing in the area of comic books as they transform from the printed form onto the big screen. Comics were once a field for big morality tales, in reality. Pulpy at times, of course, but they were plays on good and evil, and individual responsibility, and the cost of being a good person vs. the shame of evil. The art in these things was often glorious, sometimes not. But the stories were huge. Today it seems to me that the entertainment value of a comic is more related to the effects one can put on the screen than the stories themselves. A related area is that the social conversations around comic films are focused more on inclusion regarding casting (which I fully agree with), rather than on inclusion regarding the portrayal of cultures in fuller ways. Perhaps that will be next. I don’t know. But it seems to me that comic book movies are really just playing with the tropes of comic books rather than focusing on things that made them (for me) great.

Anyway, I digress.

If you have interest in genre, or interest in Toni Morrison’s work, I suggest you read Hendrix’s thoughts. Definitely worth the time.

Help Us Get to 2113?

The mega-news today is that you can now pre-order copies of 2113, which is the anthology of stories inspired by Rush songs that includes my work “A Patch of Blue.” I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am about this one. I spent a lot of good times listening to these guys. [grin]

So, if you’re planning to pick it up, now’s the time! Of course, if you weren’t planning on picking up a copy, I’ve got to question your sanity. At question is whether we’ll somehow manage to get 2113 pre-orders of 2113. Bang on, right? 2113. How cool would that be, eh?

You can do your part by pre-ordering in these places:

Amazon
Amazon UK
Amazon Canada

Kobo

My story is one inspired by Rush’s “Natural Science,” which is a monstrous work in three acts that’s just cool as all get-out. It was a total blast to write, partially because I got to put it on endless loop while I did it–so, yeah, the song is pretty much indelibly inked onto my brain now.

Not that it wasn’t before.

Here it is, for your listening pleasure:

What is “Good?”

skyline

Now that I’m beginning to settle into Arizona, I’ve been attending a local writers’ club. These are hobbyists, mostly—people who want to have fun putting words on the page. They give each other prompts, and they read each other what they responded with. It’s a good time.

This last session, one of them asked if the members wanted to grade the session. He explained that we could give each work a numerical ranking that spanned from poor through average and into very good, and then the writer would know if her piece was in some fashion “good.” He meant well, hoping it would help us get better. And he was shot down.

We talked about this for a few minutes thereafter and, as I was walking home, the conversation got me to thinking.

Just what is “good?”

I recently read a great piece from Ursula Le Guin about how a writer goes about making something “good.” If you are a writer, I strongly suggest you read it. If you are not a writer, I suggest you read it anyway because it’s a good piece of advice, regardless.

But I do want to make a point of the differences in these questions. My question is not “how does one make something good” but is instead, “when do I know that what I’ve created is actually good?”

The abrupt and mostly true answer is: you don’t.

At least not always, or at least not the way you might be thinking about it, anyway. It is cliché that a writer is her own worst judge.

It’s probably fair for “us creative folks” to consider it unfortunate that a person who creates something does not get to be the final arbiter of whether that thing is good or not. The writer (or painter, or film maker, or photographer, or …), instead, must be subjected to the seemingly arbitrary nature of an audience in order to make this decision. This is how it is in the big ol’ commercial world.

An audience will let you know exactly where they stand on your work, good or bad, or just merely “too short” (yeah, inside-ish joke there). And, yet …

This isn’t quite true.

As I was walking through the February winter here in Arizona, slogging through the 80 degree sunshine, downhill both ways, I thought about the question and I thought about Le Guin’s essay. I decided that she touches on the “what” part of this question in a sleight-of-hand kind of way. Here’s her quote:

The important thing is to know what it is you’re making, where your story is going, so that you use only the advice that genuinely helps you get there.

This whole creative thing, you see, is a shell game in which your goal is to keep looking under all the cups until you find that magic thing that tells you what you’re actually making. Until you’ve done that, there really is no way to know if you’re succeeding.

Let’s get something straight here first—merely the idea that you are making something is enough for you to begin and to finish. In other words, what you make does not have to be good. In fact, while you are making it, it cannot possibly be good. This is because while you are making something, there is no “good,” there is only what you are making and whether what you are making winds up being what you intend to make or not. This can be very frustrating at times, because your inner psyche will not always tell you what it is that you are making until towards the end of the process (read Le Guin’s comment there…note that nowhere does she say that the image of what you are doing actually happens when you start—only that in order to do something “good” you need to know this).

Sometimes you know what you’re going to do when you start—but not too often. Sometimes you have no idea what you are doing until right before the very end. These last are the stories that surprise you, or the stories that make you realize you started in the wrong place, or that make you understand that the entire first draft must be scrapped in order to write the real story. They are also the stories you finish and step back to say … “wow, I wonder where that came from.” Yes. It’s insidious as all hell.

Regardless, speaking for myself only, there is no “good” in the work of creation. What there can be, however, is a form of pleasure in the act of creation itself, a sense that I’m making something that no one else can ever make because they are not me. Then … and only then, really … comes this thing where I understand what my work of the day is trying to say (*). This is when I decide if something is good—or, as I’ve grown to consider it: when I become proud of what I’ve done.

That’s the key.

If you’ve enjoyed the process it was worth doing. And if, by its end, the work has made you feel something important, then it’s “good” because then you can be proud of it—even if no one else likes It, though I suggest that if you do something that makes you feel something in some way, there will be other people out there who like it. It just won’t be 100% of people, because in that sense (the commercial sense of the consumer) the term “good” means something different to everyone, and, let’s face it, there is no writer of any worth who has ever written anything that everyone considers good.

There will always be someone out there who will say TLDR, or “weak,” or whatever.

(*) Realize that what you think you are saying or doing in a piece of art is not necessarily the same thing as what everyone else will think you are doing. People bring their own biases and frames of reference into everything. At the session in question, I read “After.” This is a 200+ word story that appeared in both Analog and 16 Single Sentence Stories. After hearing it, the group discussed it for a few moments, and of the eight others there, at least three separate veins of thought existed about it. This is, in reality, one of the coolest things about being a writer. People pick things that have meaning from their own palate, and apply it to what you bring to them. Sometimes everything lines up, but not always.

So, yeah…

Create.

Do your best.

Read Le Guin’s piece and work hard to make something “good”—whatever that is to you. And when you do that work, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll work harder to decide what “good” means to you, and you’ll have your standards shift around like mine have and like most dedicated writers I know have.

“Good,” you see, is weird. It isn’t about how long it takes: write fast, write slow, it doesn’t matter. Dig into a work, or throw it to the wind, no one cares—not even you, really. Looking back on something you’ve made, what you care about is whether you gave it the proper due, whether you did your “best” in regard to the piece and whether that effort makes you feel good in some way or another. In the end, “good” is whatever moves us.

I realize this can sound borderline pretentious. But, while pretension has its roots in the segmentation of “good,” this is idea is not pretentious of itself because this idea is the antithesis of segmentation. It is about letting the creative spark happen as it will happen, about recognizing that spark—or at least trusting that spark (sometimes over every other fiber in your body), and about conveying that spark in a way that makes you feel something. It’s about playing, it’s about valuing the thing inside you that makes things, whether that thing you are making is a happy little poem, or a splash of color you threw on a canvas that made you feel good, or a novelette that gets published to quickly disappear, or a story that gets optioned, or wins an award, or a picture you planned out and captured just as you thought it should be (or the quick digital flash that caught the love of your life in one of those perfect moments of pure accident).

The key is to be able to see what a piece says to you at the right time, or even better to be able to feel it. The key is to know that what moves you will move others. They key is to get used to the fact that what you and your work have to say matters, even if it only matters to you. Because if something you’ve made matters to you, if you understand what it means to you, then you can be proud of it.

And as a person who creates things, that is what “good” means to me.

In that light, here’s an interesting way to spend 50 minutes:



Bowie

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.

We often lose public icons, but it’s rare that we lose a true artist.

Today, though, we did.

And that’s why I’m stopping here and there in the middle of my day, and sighing, not with sadness, but instead with a sense of loss that spreads all the way into the fabric of who we are.

Tangent Online does their recommended reading list

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.

Anyway … yay us! FWIW, the entire anthology was reviewed quite positively here. [grin]

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!

Sum

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.

The film is by Temujin Doran, and adapts a short piece by David Eagleman.

So, how susceptible are you?

The questions on hand today are:

(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.

However, as this article reports, and as I’m sure most people would guess, some of us are more susceptible than others. The article is an overview of a study of 800 people, titled: “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.”—a document that comes complete with its own fairly reasonable and scientifically measurable definition of bullshit.

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:

  • Resist clickbait
  • 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.



The Donald: Is It All Just Reality TV?

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.

Hmmm …

Oscar buzz …

Now, there’s a concept that The Donald could sink his teeth into.

You think?

#

* – 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.

On Shifts of Tectonic Plates

I did not get to sleep very easily last night.

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.

Hidden in Crime is published

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.

You can find details about this anthology, including the entire table of contents, here.

And you can subscribe to the entire Fiction River series here

Dear Book I Am Working On

Dear Book I Am Working On,

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?

Signed,

Me

The Wrong Way to Write

danger-sign
“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.

Want my stuff at half-price?

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

Two Whole Freaking Days?

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.

So, yeah. It’s coming together.

Ron’s Most Excellent Adventure

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.

Miata-ColumbusWhat 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.

But, of course, it wasn’t science fiction at all.

I walked down the street to get a picture of the gateway they erected to mark the place.

Carthage-CWSite

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.

Joplin-BnCHere’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.

Johnny-BenchTalk 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.

Bench-JerseyDay 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.

Sigh.

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.

Here’s an article about the creation of this map.

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.

VLA-Ron

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:



Me and a Tree

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