Playing with the Universal

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the nature of story ideas and which ones will sell, be successful, all that.  Which, I guess, considering how many ideas I’ve come up with lately (I’m journaling 5-10 of them almost every morning), is probably natural.

I don’t have anything solid pulled together yet, this is just notes.

  • I tend to notice this more in music than in writing, but there’s this thing where a creator suddenly becomes aware of the idea of a broad audience and writes an extremely popular work, which is then often labeled a sellout.  “I Gotta Feelin’” by the Black Eyed Peas came on the radio this morning, which is what reminded me of it.  But in the writing crowd, you see people like Scott Westerfeld, who wrote a bunch of SF before he hit the Uglies series.
  • The more popular something is, the “worse” it’s considered by a certain crowd, who seem absolutely assured that the less niche something is, the less value it has.  This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with craft as such.  This seems to go with the hipster “I liked XXX before they were popular” type of statement.  Is this something I should take into account as a writer?  Should I worry about “selling out”?  Not that I’m “in” in the first place…
  • Then again–and once again I find this easier to notice with music–there are creators who don’t ever seem to get less specific/more universal:  their style stays more or less the same (and is well-crafted), but the world seems to change to fit them.  Tool comes to mind.  Watching Jeff Vandermeer go up the charts on the Southern Reach trilogy is what made me think of this one.
  • A question that a lot of (newer) writers ask–they seem to revolve around it, like moths–is “Should I write to follow XXX trend?”  Sometimes it seems like what they’re really asking is “Should I sell out, and, if so, how?!?” And yet, year after year, what you see from agents and editors is, “Don’t be derivative, write your own stuff, stick to writing what you love.”  And yet plenty of people a) have success being extremely derivative, and b) fail miserably by writing what they love.
  • On a basic level, it seems like the simplest answer to the question “Should I write what I love or sell out in some fashion?” seems to be “If you take care of your audience, it doesn’t matter.”  This is harder than it looks, of course, or everyone would be doing it.  There are just so many moving parts to any type of creation.  You have to learn your tools, you have to learn to put them together.  You have to learn the craft from front to back, and that takes time.  And, once that comes naturally (!), you have to care about the audience.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain to writers that no, this particular thing they are so enamored of only works inside their heads and in fact will come across as a) unintelligible, b) unintentionally racist/sexist, and/or c) a complete waste of time.
  • “Universal” and “lowest common denominator” can seem very much the same.  Something that appeals to universal concerns also might appeal to the lowest common denominator, whatever that is.
  • Because humanity is specialized, there’s no real “universal” truth, other than the basic needs of life:  survival, reproduction, the greater good (species survival).  What are the most popular/bestslling genres in fiction?  Thrillers, romances, mysteries (which are all about defining the greater good), and Christian fiction.  What are the genres most usually looked down upon as the fiction of the masses, for people “with no taste”?
  • Erotica:  now there’s a question.  Both forbidden and craved, erotica at base is the pure sugar of fiction.  The opiate.  It hits pleasure centers but leaves very little behind other than a nervous system that becomes quickly acclimatized to quick hits of pleasure–unless you mix it with something else, whether a universal truth or some kind of more niche truth.
  • So, on the one hand, you can cater to the most common, most universal truths (and/or addictions) or you can find a niche that caters to more specific truths.  Some people will naturally gravitate toward more universal or more specific truths.
  • At a more advanced level of answering the question of “Should I write what I love or should I sell out?” there are actually two questions going on:  first, “Do you write well enough that you can focus on your audience?”, and second, “How much of a niche concern is what you love?”
  • If the answer to the first is no, then maybe it doesn’t matter what you write, because you’re not in it to take care of the audience and what they want anyway.  Not yet.
  • If the answer to the first is yes, then…it’s time to look at what you love.  If you truly love a niche, maybe you should write to that, and write so well that the world comes to you.
  • But if you find that the things you love are pretty widespread, then maybe you want to look at writing more universally rather than drilling down, or maybe writing universally in most aspects but drilling down on a couple that really matter to you (e.g., Stephen King–a pretty universal writer who loves rock music, Maine, etc.).
  • The thing is that you should not write to a truth you don’t believe in.  Don’t write a niche you don’t love, no matter how popular it is, because you’ll never truly be in it to take care of your audience.  And if you’re not in it to take care of your audience, go back to the beginning, because you’re not a good enough writer yet.  You will be, at best, a one-hit wonder–or a slave to a genre you hate.  But if what you love shifts–or if a genre shifts away from you–then by all means switch.
  • And, in the end, I’d be very careful with satire.  Because you could be making fun of some universal truth and get stuck with becoming a part of it.  I was trying to come up with satirical ideas the other day.  They were a) quite difficult, and b) very difficult to separate out from straightforward ideas that were emphatic to the point of hyperbole, once I looked at them later.
  • In the end, when questioning whether a creator has sold out, I think it comes down to whether they’re still doing what they love.
  • The difference between craft and art seems to come down to passion.  Maybe I’ve run myself into a logical rabbit hole, where of course once you define things the way I’ve defined them, then logically what’s left after you remove the question of craft from the equation is what you love, so therefore the difference between art and craft is what you love, another name for which is passion.  And yet it feels right.
  • A ton of works written by master creators haven’t survived through the years.  They’ve been enjoyed but haven’t endured except among those who are studying the craft or are just fond of an obscure, old-fashioned niche.  I’m reading Hard Case Crimes, for example.
  • Of the works that do survive, they (intuitively!) seem to have several things in common:  1) They are written by masters in service of their audience.  2) They touch on both universal truths and yet are honed in specific ways, in service to certain niches.  (Or are grounded in niches which have since become more universal.)  3) They are filled with a great love.  When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It  is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.  All that is gold does not glitter,/ Not all those who wander are lost.  
  • It’ll be interesting to watch the fate of popular books that don’t have those three things in common. Books that appeal to the universal with an eye to a niche, with great passion, and with skill but without mastery (Twilight).  Books written by masters in service of their audience, that touch on universal truths but are honed in specific ways…and yet are written without passion (Patterson).  Books written by masters with passion, yet without an eye to universal truths (or sometimes, an audience) (Umberto Eco, post-Rose).  A hundred thousand minor books perfectly suited to their genre at the moment that try but don’t nail all three points (most books).  A hundred master writers who stick to their niche, come what may, and chance into a wider audience–or not (Gene Wolfe).

Where I’m at right now is that story ideas–to get back to the starting point–for me, since I’m not really a niche writer so much as I have general trends and a few common elements, should touch on the universal, yet be grounded in a niche.  I should keep working on craft (who shouldn’t?).  And I should keep an eye out, as I’m writing ideas, to make sure that I’m dealing with things that I love.

Simple stuff, but I suck at simple stuff.  Eight POV characters, one of which is really someone completely different, in a kids’ book, 25K or less?  No problem.  Figuring out what to write (that might sell well)?  Just shoot me.

Also, I think I’m just going to let go of brainstorming satire ideas.  I’m just not built for it.

 

 

The Nothing.

You remember The Neverending Story?

I forget who recommended it to me.  I want to say it was this guy who had casually decided that I needed to be a pothead.  I have this vivid memory of walking beside a shelterbelt of elm trees with him and another guy who kept chewing on a grass stem.  They were talking about the first guy’s knife collection and how good he was at throwing them, and how easy he found violence.  They were both headed off to college that year, I think, and I was back for the summer.  We’re walking along the shelterbelt and suddenly he broke off talking about trying to keep his brother out of some fight and said, “You’d make a good pothead, you know that?”

And I, being a smartass, answered that books were my drugs.

I don’t actually remember either of them talking about the book, but when I went looking for my earliest memory of The Neverending Story, this was what was there.  It’s probably wrong:  the movie came out in 1984, and more than likely, if I hadn’t read the book by college in 1992, my friends from Rapid City would have put it in my hands personally, glaring at me the whole time because it just wasn’t right that I hadn’t read it yet.

At any rate, I contain the story for The Neverending Story.  Not word for word, not even plot-point-by-plot-point.  Sometimes stories get graven into you, they’re part of you.  If every single copy of The Neverending Story suddenly disappeared, I could recreate it.  It’d be twisted by my memory, of course, and colored by my experiences and voice.  But the story, I could recreate it.

The first half of the book (and the first movie) are taken up with Bastien Balthazar Bux reading a book called The Neverending Story and gradually learning that he has to save the world, Fantasia, from destruction by the Nothing.

What is the Nothing?

Because my memories of reading the book are so hazy (and probably wrong), I’m not really sure whether I ran into the concept of the Nothing first, or felt it.

I started writing (as opposed to making up stories) sometime in my first couple of years of high school.  It was either that or drawing mandalas and mazes.  I had to do something as I sat at the back of the classroom, homework done, riding through the long, dull parts of the class where the teacher explained everything again…and again…and again.  Plus a teacher (a grammarian) dragged me off to writing camp.  I enjoyed it, I liked the people there, I got a brief crush on a poet and another one on a novelist with gray hair and cowboy boots who stood a foot shorter than I did.

I came back with an identity:  I was a writer.

And, well, I sucked, but I had a purpose.  Mostly I wrote poetry.  I found it easier.  Also, if you stuck your nose up in the air and held to your guns, you could write poetry in lower case, which saved on the number of times I had to type out each page, because that was back in the day where you could more easily get time on a typewriter than on a computer, and because nobody was passing out free whiteout for corrections.

But the reason I was writing–that was the most important part.  Why write?

Because it was something to do, that I did better than a lot of people, that could define me at a time when I was flopping around, that I could connect back to my storytelling in childhood.  All that.

But also because I was lonely and isolated, and writing took that away.

Books were my drugs.

But writing was also a drug.  It made me feel important, or at least not some kind of bland, formless mush whose main personality trait was shyness.  It made me feel like this yawning chasm underneath me had a ladder, a way out.  I had a purpose.  A meaning.  More than that, it felt like I was a puzzle piece about to slide off the table, and instead I had been snapped into place.  A calling.  A function.

An answer to the blackness, and the emptiness, and the loneliness.

The Nothing.

The other half of the book is important, too.  You have to learn, as a writer, how not to think that the things you make up are just for yourself.  You can do whatever you want:  but what you should be doing is writing to bring this stuff, stories, the Water of Life, if you will, to other people.

But the Nothing.

If you don’t fight the Nothing, then you’re done.

When you stop fighting the Nothing, then you’re done.

When I don’t write, I have nightmares.  Before I started writing in high school, I’d sneak into the bathroom at night and lie on the floor with the lights on.

It seems incredible to me that I’m one of the people that has to fight the Nothing, that black despair, that emptiness.  Who, me?  We’re screwed.

But in reality, well, we all have jobs, don’t we?  We’re all shoring up the world against ruin, in often misguided and short-sighted ways.  It’s not like we’re actually alone in our work, no matter what the wolves working for the Nothing try to tell us.

When the despair takes hold, keep working, that’s all.  Get better at what you do.  And remember that you’re doing it for someone else, to shore them up against despair.

Someone has to fight the Nothing, after all.  And if you don’t fight it, you’re the first one it’ll take.

 

 

 

The Outrage Machine

Over the last week or so, I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe the thing where certain people are just always up in arms over something. This is, admittedly, somewhat like a fish developing a word for water. I am trying to crawl up on land, as it were, but I’m still having to think these things through.  Painfully.

Lately I’ve been thinking of this thing as “the outrage machine.”

The outrage feeds into the worst of us, and, although social media sites are really great for a lot of things, they are really and truly effective at feeding the outrage machine.

I’ve seen it on all sides of the political/social map, even moderates. Need to feel superior to someone today? Join the outrage machine and forward a news article about something negative.  Call someone a troll.  Crush them for having some irrelevant flaw in their argument and pronounce a victory.  Hijack a comment thread.  Get into a petty bickering war.  Fill up the psychic space of everyone around you with outrage, either at the original issue or at the fact that they disagree with you.  Or, almost worse, get into a circlejerk of being outraged with other people who are outraged about the same things as you.

Right or wrong, it’s a nasty, smelly thing. Because the tone of the conversation is limited to outrage, anything you do to combat outrage–unless it’s walking away–just feeds into the machine.

Now, there are things we should truly be outraged at.  And then we should let that outrage go.  Because it does nothing good.  Outrage can inspire action, but it never actually helps with the solution.

It makes even the most uplifting cause into a sewer.  It distorts everything we hear, driving us to express our outrage quickly, without thought or compromise, in order to prove that we belong to the right groups and believe the right things.

Outrage is a tool.  It’s an abyss that looks back into you.  It has no sense of humor, no subtlety, no shades of gray.  It doesn’t listen.  It demands proof, then rejects it.  It has no joy, it loves nothing (even as it screams about how it’s defending what it loves), it brings no peace.  It destroys art and turns artists into slaves.

If it can be fought at all, it is fought with patience and empathy, as a kind of firewall between outbreaks.  It is fought with laughter.  It is fought by turning one’s back on it.

And moving on.

 

 

 

Sometimes you go fallow.

You probably don’t want to read this post:  it’s one of those self-centered “taking stock” posts.  Although if you’ve been hurting lately on the writing front, maybe.

So I’ve had what has been (to me) a rough year.  I won’t go into too much detail, but it seems like there’s been at least one major stressful life event per month to deal with:  life threw more at me than I could handle.

Other people deal with far more, with far better grace.  And yet it’s been constant, and from multiple directions, and my life is pretty much set up to not be under constant stress.  I close up into my little shell under stress.  I stop being human and switch over to invulnerable robot mode.  I turn off my emotions and am constantly low-grade ill.

I worked hard not to be in this place, and yet here I am.

One of the things that’s come out of this is that I’ve stopped writing a lot of my own fiction.  I still write–a lot–but it’s mostly for freelancing stuff.  I’m writing imaginative fiction; I’ve finished (and been paid for) five novels this year and am almost done with a sixth.  I love doing it, but…part of the reason that they’re so easy and fun to write is that they’re someone else’s responsibility.

I don’t come up with the ideas.  I don’t judge whether they’re good or not.  I don’t have to market or format or edit or anything.  I get to just write.

The writer’s dream, right?

Please don’t tell me that I need to be working for myself, blah blah blah.  There are reasons I’m doing this, and not all of them are because I’m too terrified to work on my own stuff some days.  Some of them are extremely practical, including cash flow and the desperate need for my internship in writing to be paid at this point–for my peace of mind.

And because I needed a break from writing things for myself.

A lot of the time when I write for myself lately, I’ll have a hair up my butt about something, and I’ll write a story explaining all about the hair up my butt.  And then I’ll go to sell it and think, “Who the @#$% wants to read about this hair up my butt?”

Sometimes people do, you know.  It’s weird.  But it’s not sustainable.

So I did a few things to try to get myself out of that:

  • I ditched a lot of books that I thought I “should” read, the award-winners in my genres, because a lot of the award winners lately have been, IMO, hair-up-the-butt stories, and I need to stay away from that for a while.
  • I started reading more in the classic crime genre.  Hard Case Crimes, Westlake, Block, that crowd.  Because there is no forgiveness in that crowd for lack of story, hair or no hair.
  • I stopped (mostly) posting about anything I have a hair up my butt about.  It was hard.  And I stopped giving a shit about writers with hairs up their butt.  Either you write good shit or you @#$%^& don’t.  I’m tired of the politics, both on the macro and micro scales.  Politics mess me up as a writer and a human being.
  • And if you get into my comments here or on FB and tell me why that justifies your politics, I will block and delete you.  Because you’re @#$%^& poison.  I still read about politics.  I may even read your screed on your website/FB feed and enjoy it.  But stay the @#$% off mine.
  • I stopped writing for myself for the most part, and worked on writing for other people.
  • I pretty much stopped blogging.  And newslettering.  And all that sideshow crap.  I just couldn’t keep it up on a regular basis, no matter how good it’s supposed to be for my career.  Minimalist writer.  What does that even mean?  Should I try to find out?  News at 11…

I’ve been too drained to put too much of myself out there lately.  And completely unsure of whether I should.  When Ray first had her surgery, I couldn’t write.  For like two weeks.  Imagine, if you will, being put on furlough for two weeks for a job that you have been fighting for years to make minimum wage at, so you no longer have savings or sick time or any reserves whatsoever.

Even after I started being able to write again, I had to rebuild stamina.  I’m just now getting back to the point of being able to write with any kind of focus for six hours at a shot.  Think of that:  normal people work eight-hour days.  Don’t think in terms of “Six hours of writing at a shot?  That’s impressive!”  Think in terms of income.  I still have days where that can’t happen, where my brain’s fried.  And I still have another hour’s worth of (unpaid) email and the like to deal with every day, and still no bennies or employer paying most of my taxes, and still too many would-be clients who are like, “But I can’t affooooord to pay you what translates to minimum wage.”  And pro markets, which I rarely get accepted by, that don’t pay professional wages anyway.  And more schadenfreud than you can shake a stick at, every time I bitch about how hard it is to do indie at all, let alone well, and the constant advice about how I should just throw more money at the situation and everything would be magically all better.  Yay.  Advice from middle-class day-job writers and writers who are already successful in traditional markets.  Yaaaaay.

So:  ghostwriting.  It’s been a blessing.

I forgot to mention a point:

  • I write five to ten story ideas every day, with the goal of finding story ideas that I can imagine selling well and that I actually would want to write.

I’ve written hundreds of story ideas lately.  Hundreds.  Some good, some bad, some so derivative that even I was rolling my eyes even as I wrote them down just to add to the list.  I know how to come up with story ideas.  I just didn’t know how to unite my interests and anyone else’s.  Another hole in my arsenal:  the one that most people start with, I think.  “I have this idea for a book; we could split the profits 50/50.”  I have heard some variation on that phrase probably more often than I get actual, out-loud comments about my last name.  “You know that your name looks like the word nipple, right?”  At any rate, I’ve gotten better at coming up with ideas that both sound good and seem fun to write.  As with anything, the key to bootstrapping a new skill is practice and repetition combined with good theory.

So I’m starting to feel more confident about ideas.

But I’m also having to start over a little bit.

If I have to produce so many hours of freelancing per day (and I pretty much do), then where’s the time for my own writing?

After regular business hours.  On weekends.  If I skimp on something else, like family or friends or, God forbid, cut back on social media.

It’s kind of nice, actually.  My own writing isn’t my job anymore.  So I have more room to screw up, which is another way to say play.  And my soul has been hurting this year, I won’t lie.  It needs some play.  But staying in my own little sandbox won’t get me where I want to go.  So I have to come out eventually.

But in a lot of ways, I’ve enjoyed being just slightly fallow, letting the part of me that constantly stresses about I’m not getting enough published I’m not promoting enough I need to blog more go on blog tours promote promote promote  just lie there and sleep.  I haven’t, for example, given a shit about Facebook ads or Google Play for months.

In the end, I think I would rather spend the time getting better as a writer, and maintaining skills on everything else at this point.

And remembering how to be brave enough to play in public.

That’s what hurts the worst at this point, now that I am handling the stress better.  I miss being able to share play with people easily and freely.  But rather than making grandiose plans about MY COMMITMENT TO MY READERS and all that, I think I’ll just have to wait and see.

Chop wood, carry water, write words.

 

 

 

Cooking phases.

When I first started really cooking, I threw things together. Lentils, salt, crock pot, thyme. Then I started following recipes. And eating, lots of eating of things that I wouldn’t have otherwise eaten. Nothing truly daring, but new foods. Indian buffets were my daring indulgence. I lived in a vegetarian co-op and cooked green pea soup without sour cream or bacon.

Then I started breaking out of recipes and cooking without recipes. Not baking, just cooking. This was a combination of wanting to recreate things I’d eaten, memorizing recipes and not needing them in front of me, and little touches of understanding. And when I followed recipes it was in making things that I’d eaten a lot of, but never made before. Mayonnaise, salad dressing, pesto.

Then I started researching, trying to find out why I couldn’t cook certain things. Beans. I kept trying to make things with dried beans and it wasn’t working. I think that was the trigger, one of the main triggers on that phase. I wanted to make homemade pork’n’beans. Is it so much to ask for? Apparently.  I still don’t have it down.  And how do you meet the challenge of cooking vegan? Cooking gluten free? These were the kinds of questions I cooked to answer.

Then, over the last year or two, I drifted out of cooking. Even as I ate more widely and daringly, I hated the effort involved in keeping people fed. The obligation of it. Lee kept telling me, “You don’t have to cook if you don’t want to.” And nothing fell apart without me. My daughter learned to do more for herself, Lee started cooking more. We ate less complicated, less “cooked” things. Bowls of cereal, yes, but also more grilling, more salads, more rice cooker rice with leftovers on top. I was done, I was dried out, I was bored with everything and didn’t know where to go to find something new. My cooking wasn’t perfected, not even close, but even so the quality of my cooking went downhill as my soul went out of it. Boiling eggs was too much work, making breakfast. I used to make a batch of granola every week, but I stopped. It just dried out of me. I had a few things I wanted to make. Green chili. But mostly the drive faded.

Today I’ve been thinking about that.

I started getting more into cooking because it helps balance me out. I’m in my head so much that I need to be dragged out from time to time. I like to eat. I like the sensuousness of smelling fresh-chopped garlic. I like surprise of the perfect cherry. I like listening to the bubbles pop as I knead bread, the hiss of onions in the pan.  Being able to taste when wine needs air.  I struggle to get out of my own head; cooking used to be my line to shore.

Today I made garlic potatoes, trying a new technique. It’s too hot in the house to roast the damn things. If you’re going to fry potatoes, for example the perfect french fries, you’re supposed to fry them first at a lower temperature to cook the insides, then crank up the heat, drain them, and fry them again so they get the perfect, glasslike crust. While the sausages were grilling, I nuked the cubed potatoes with some garlic and some salt to cook the insides. And then I pan-fried them over higher heat in olive oil, finished them with salt and grated Irish cheddar.  Not perfect.  Also: next time I’ll add the garlic later, it got too brown.

A couple of times I tried to escape from the moment: get back into my head and stop caring about what was actually going on. If the theory was good, the potatoes would be good. But that’s not how cooking works. Every time, the potatoes are different. And so theory is nice, but theory will always come up short.

This is where I’m going. Maybe not now, maybe not soon. But learning to stay with the ingredients, with the heat, with the timing.  Maybe I’ll cook more, maybe I won’t.  Maybe I’ll make a thousand batches of potatoes, one after the other, until I go insane.

Unwanted Story

Another exercise thingy:

 

Two stories tall, narrow, Victorian-style, hardwood floors now sprinkled with antique rugs, two and a half baths with good plumbing under them; a cellar whose shelves groaned out for jars of jam and carbuoys of beer; robin’s-egg blue walls in good condition and an air conditioning unit fit to freeze Hell over with: the house on Mulberry Street was perfect for a children’s writer with ice-blue eyes and dark brown hair and a new husband named Tim.  There was even a nursery already decorated with white wainscotting and blue wallpaper splattered with Beatrix Potter characters–although honestly, she intended to take the paper down and replace it with something from The Hobbit long before she got knocked up.

Most mornings, she sent her husband off to his job with a kiss and climbed back up the stairs, pulling on the wooden banister so she could take the steps two or three at a time, she was so eager to get back to work.  But lately she’d been brewing herself a cup of too-strong Earl Gray tea in their shiny new microwave, drinking it while sitting in the breakfast nook of their narrow but otherwise charming steel-and-oak kitchen, staring out the windows onto the heavy, humid greenery in the back yard, and wishing she hadn’t signed the contract.  There were so many other stories that wanted to be written, and the dark, watchful spaces between the lilac leaves weren’t helping.

She sat and drank cups of tea until the cats sent for her, tangling around her ankles and sticking their heads in her cup–and then she went upstairs.  There was no arguing with cats.  So she climbed the stairs, more slowly now, the eyes of the cats pressing on her back, and opened the crystal-knobbed door to her office.

Tim had painted it for her.   Deep, cloudless blue, with a white ceiling that lit up with at least a thousand stars at night.  The window curtan was a shimmering, translucent purple stitched with gold thread. A negligee of a curtain.  The only lights came from a pair of antique stained-glass lamps on either end of her glass-and-steel desk.  And her monitor.

The a/c clicked on.   Chris slid into her office chair, dropped the heavy quilt over her blue jeans, put her toes over the vent, then leaned over and booted up her computer.  Magoo, sleek and black, and tabby Tuna clawed up onto her lap, one head in either direction.  Shasta hogged the back of the small futon like it was her hoard; the gray-and-black tiger-striped Things packed themselves into the space between the monitor and the lamp like sardines.  The lamp wobbled.  Chris picked it up and set it on her printer on top of the tan filing cabinet.

The cats always knew when she was having trouble writing.  She’d never been able to tell whether they meant to comfort her or if they were just pleased by the smell of frustrated tears.

Rubbing the creases across her forehead, Chris started to open the file, then stopped.  She hated this story.  Just hated it.  Yet every morning when she woke up, she knew what to do next with it.  It was just that predictable.  She wanted the story to fail.  She wanted to keep her name off it.  She wanted to call her editor and say, “This just isn’t my kind of thing,” take the advance out of savings, and break the contract.

And she would have.  If the pages hadn’t been writing themselves.

Cherry Season

Part of a writing exercise thingy:

 

You hate food balloons.  Anything with a tough skin over a mushy middle.  Peaches are okay.  The skin isn’t thick enough to conceal rot.  You know where you are with a peach.  But grapes, most grapes are horrible.  You can’t just pop a grape into your mouth.  That’s just disgusting:  until it’s too late, you can’t tell whether the grape’s going to be rotten or not.  There’s a thin blade between optimal grape eating time, and rotten grape time, and you can’t always tell with your fingers when it is.   You don’t eat the mushy ones, of course.  But grapes rot from the stem out, so sometimes they still feel firm when really they’re falling apart.  Pop one straight into your mouth, and you get a mouth of rotting sweetness that makes you gag.  No matter how carefully you feel for dry stems or search for a wet brown ring around them, you’re going to end up eating a couple of rotten grapes in every bunch.  So you avoid grapes.  The risk is too much, the reward too little.

Cherry tomatoes are pretty touchy, too.   But you like tomatoes more, so you risk it: you cut them in half first, of course, and check the yellow seeds and the white flesh and the watery, pale insides and think about how it’s too bad that most tomatoes aren’t allowed to get really ripe.  But of course that’s a risk, too.  It’s one thing to say you’re serving tomatoes, and it’s another to serve the perfect tomato, and you get most of the reward, as a restauranteur, from just saying you’re serving tomatoes and not actually serving good ones.   Serving good tomatoes is too high a risk that a customer’s going to bite into rot.  You can lose your shirt chasing the perfect tomato.

But then there are cherries.

You don’t buy cherries when they’re expensive.  There just isn’t any point.  When they’re cheap you buy a lot of them.  The first few batches are too sour.  Underripe.   You bite down on them with your upper teeth at the edge of the stem so that your incisors sheer down the side of the pit.   Cherry pit poison scrapes onto your teeth and you like it.  You bite off half the cherry, eat it, then use your teeth to bite the pit out of the other half.  There’s juice on your fingers, it’s staining under your fingernails.  With the really ripe ones you find stray dots of juice like blood spatter at a crime scene.  Then, like a magic trick, you spit out the pit at the same time you eat the other half of the cherry.  A switcheroo.   And toss the pit away into the trash while you swallow.

Cherries rot from the inside out.  At least, the ones you trick yoursel into eating. The rot that lies along the pit tastes dry and tannic, like mummy flesh, and you can fool yourself into eating two or three before you have to stop, because your body is in revulsion of your betrayal.  Poison.   You’re eating poison, you know.  If you don’t stop this instant I will vomit this back up, I don’t care that you’d need to eat a ton of these in order to be in actual danger, young lady, I’ve had enough of this…

Then you retch.

And that’s the end of the cherry season, and you’re back to hating all food balloons, everywhere, except the ones like ikura eggs that go crunch between your teeth.  Even orange slices are iffy sometimes.  But that glorious cherry season.  Every year.  You push it as far as you can go.  To the point of feeling the rotten cherry slide back up your throat.

Writer Blog: How to Bootstrap

I’ve been talking to someone about writing, about learning to write, about integrating parts of your life so you have something to write about…

…and she’s kind of soaking it up like a sponge.

It’s eerie.

(I’m perfectly fine running at the mouth, but having people take me seriously gives me the creeps.  I’m not built to be an authority, even though that’s where it feels like I’m going sometimes.  Ugh.)

Here’s the deal, though:

No matter what writing advice I give, no matter what I say, every writer has to do it for themselves.  It?  What it?

Bootstrap.

Bootstrapping:  the act of walking up an imaginary staircase by pulling yourself up by the straps of your boots, one step at a time.

Every single writer you’ve ever read?  Bootstrapped themselves.  (Except those employing ghost writers, but even then the ghostwriter had to do it.)  And every single short story, every single book, brings new challenges which then must be bootstrapped on an individual basis.  You don’t ever magically get to a point where writing stops requiring bootstrappery.

If you wanted to identify a single meta-skill that would put you further ahead in writing, it’s this:

Learn to read faster.

Not joking.

But if you could name two skills that would put you further ahead in your writing, here’s the second one:

Learn to bootstrap.

Seriously.  It’s not just a writing skill, it’s an everything skill.  But how do you do it?

I can only tell you how I did it…because everyone, of necessity, bootstraps differently.

  • I don’t accept other people’s advice until I’ve tested both the advice and the opposite of the advice, or at least the cost of not following the advice.  Yes, I will stick my hand into the fire just because someone told me not to.  Because sometimes people tell you bullshit things like, “Don’t eat the cake, it doesn’t taste good.”  Just because they don’t like cake.  Is it cake or is it fire?  Nobody else gets to decide.  Plus, if you’re too scared of the fire, you never learn how to make cake.
  • When testing advice, I test the holy crap out of it.  I don’t just try it once.  I try it multiple times, in multiple moods, in as many ways as I can think of.  Even bad advice, if it catches my eye.
  • @#$% perfection.  Nothing I make is going to be perfect, right?  Nothing anybody else makes is going to be perfect, either.  Especially when I try to apply it to my own imperfect self.
  • Instead of searching for perfection, I search for the razor’s edge between satisfaction and discomfort.  Comfort Zone | Outside Comfort Zone.  I shoot for that moment where I have no idea where I’m on familiar ground or not.  If I head too far out into the unknown all at once, I shut down and start telling myself that it’s too hard, that I have no idea what I’m doing, etc.
  • I don’t make anyone else responsible for teaching me.  I hope.  This is a lifetime’s habit to break.  I’ve had to learn how to disobey, ignore, subvert, mock, destroy, and otherwise spit on the idea of following directions.
  • At the same time, though, because bootstrapping is a paradox anyway, I had to learn to respect the giants upon whose shoulders I stand.  Even the midgets who wrote nothing but crap filled with typos and handed it out from a Xerox machine, I stand on their shoulders.  I’m heavy.  Show some @#$%^& respect.
  • I ditch what’s not working, even if it used to work.  This is kind of sad, actually.  Because nothing happens without touching other people’s lives.   I turns out the people I value the most support me, the ongoing project.  I treasure you [mwah! mwah!] and try to follow your example by supporting your and other people’s changes, even the ones who whine whenever I don’t do what they want.  Because bootstrapping isn’t without hypocrisy, as we learn to pull our heads out of our butts.
  • I keep faith.  This isn’t like “Every day I wake up and I am filled with faith!”  This is more like keeping the fire going or keeping kosher.  It’s @#$%^& work.  Writer’s faith:  I keep working at this, I’ll get better.  The only mistakes are 1) not trying, and 2) not accepting that mistakes are mistakes, so I can learn from them.

Finally, I pass it on.  What I, personally, have to say isn’t all that new.  But it might be a clue that someone else hasn’t picked up yet.  And if nobody passed on what they learned, we’d be screwed within a generation.

We’re completely alone in our bootstrapping…and yet we’re all in this together.  Cheesy but true.

So: don’t make me the first voice you listen to, or even the hundredth.  If you can’t learn to listen to yourself, it’s always going to be a waste of time to listen to me, or to listen to anybody.

Writers and artists don’t need their hands held and their egos stroked…they need their asses kicked.  The best way to get this done is to make it a self-kicking ass.

 

Cover Redo: The Scaredy Wizard of Theornin

The Scaredy Wizard of Theornin with the updated cover available at Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Apple, and Smashwords so far.

High fantasy story for preteens/middle graders with a kickbutt heroine!

The Scaredy Wizard of Theornin

I decided that I missed my cover updates, so I did one. I’m not sure whether I’ll leave this one forever, but…Ray liked it better than the old one, so it stays for now.

This one is a high fantasy short story for middle-grade/preteen readers featuring a kickbutt heroine who has a certain disregard for the property of other people.  Including wizards.

Recipe: Romesco Sauce

This is a red pepper and tomato sauce with Spanish influences, she said, trying to throw in the keywords that Lee’s most likely to use when looking up this recipe…

Romesco Sauce

1 14.5-oz can of chopped tomatoes (may be some left over, reserve for another use) or the equivalent of 6 Roma tomatoes

1 roasted red pepper (about 1/2c from a jar or you can roast your own), halved and seeds/stem removed as necessary

12 cloves garlic, peeled

1/4 c olive oil

1 slice bread (the crustier and chewier the better)

1/2c sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar

1/2 c toasted almonds

1 t Spanish paprika

1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes (or more)

salt to taste

Right, you have two options here: the DIY method or the from-a-can method.

DIY: preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Line baking sheet with tinfoil, dump olive oil on it, put halved tomatoes, red pepper, and garlic on the baking sheet, roast for 15-20 minutes or until mushy and just slightly caramelized.  You could also roast the pepper over a gas or charcoal flame, but that’s beyond the scope of this recipe.

From-a-can: pull out about half a cup of jarred roasted red peppers and about 8-10 ounces of tomatoes and juice from the can of tomatoes.  Drop the peeled garlic cloves in a dish with the olive oil and nuke on medium high until the cloves are mushy, about 4-5 minutes on medium heat.

The rest of this recipe applies to both options.

Take the half cup of almonds, spread them out on a small saute pan and toast them over low-medium heat until they smell toasty.  If they look positively burnt you’ve gone too far.  Remove the almonds from heat and toast the bread in the same pan to the same doneness.  You might then toast the paprika and then (separately) the red pepper flakes the same way if you’re feeling ambitious.

Everything’s going into a blender or food processor at this point.  But start with the peppers, tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil first just to give you a fairly wet base.  Then add the almonds, paprika, and the bread, blend to a consistent but not smooth consistency, and taste.  Add some salt and vinegar, a little at a time, until you’re happy with the taste, more or less.  If the sauce is too thick, add more tomatoes.  If too thin, try another half-slice of toasted bread.  Taste again for salt/vinegar.  Finally, add a few pepper flakes and see how that does ya.  Secret ingredient: pinch of sugar.   Only add that if you feel like it’s too sour, though, and not more than a pinch.

In the end, the flavor should be not too garlicky (if it’s too garlicky, the garlic cloves weren’t cooked enough), fairly tart, almost kind of buttery from the almonds and the olive oil/garlic combo.  It should have a pretty full body.   If you put ketchup at one end of a spectrum and mashed potatoes at the other, romesco should be around halfway to mashed potatoes.  The sauce holds up well in the fridge for a few days, and goes well with pretty much anything as a pasta sauce, dip, or sauce for meats.