Keeping Score: October 16, 2020

Did I say five new flash stories last week?

At my current pace, I’ll be lucky to finish one.

Apparently, I forgot how hard a first draft can be.

I am working on one, though. It’s a sweet little story about a group of kids who turn cannibal.

…did I not mention it was horror?

I’m sketching it out, 100 words at a time. I say sketching because I’m writing it in patches, jumping from place to place in the narrative instead of writing it straight through. It’s a way for me to get past any block I have writing a certain section. I can skip ahead, or go back to a previous scene, and come back to the part that’s giving me trouble later.

It’s working, because I’m already eight hundred words in. That also means this is likely not going to be a flash piece, unless I trim it way down after. Which is fine, but once again shows I’m not a great judge of how big the story will be based on the idea I have. Maybe that’s something that will develop over time, as I write more pieces of various sizes?

Meanwhile, the novel’s heading out to beta readers. And I’ve got some time now to pay attention to where my short stories are going, and start submitting them again.

Which means I’ll start getting rejections rolling in again. Each one still stings, but…really, there’s no other choice. Write, Finish, Submit: The last step there is as crucial as the others.

Hope where-ever you are, you’re able to keep writing, eight months into this pandemic. Using whatever tricks you can to keep your creativity alive.

Keeping Score: October 9, 2020

It’s done! The edits are done!

Well, this round of edits, anyway…There’ll be more, down the line.

But the third draft of the novel is finished!

This is the first draft that I feel can be seen, so I’m sending it out to beta readers, hoping to get some good (meaning: useful and thorough, not merely positive) feedback.

I’ll also need to send it to sensitivity readers, because some of the characters are from ethnic groups outside my own. I think I’ve done them justice, but I know I’m not the best judge of that. So I’ll ask some friends of mine to be additional readers, letting me know if I’ve messed anything up.

While I wait (and lean into my reading, to unwind a bit), I’m going to work on a short story or three.

Or five.

I found a horror anthology that’s accepting flash fiction on five different subjects through December. The topics are broad enough that I’ve brainstormed a few different story ideas for each.

Since they’re flash pieces, I thought I’d write one up for each topic, and submit them all (which they allow). Five little stories for my brain to chew on while I take a break between editing passes.

What about you? What do you do, between revisions of a longer work? Or do you take any sort of breathing room between them, at all?

Galaxy’s Edge: Black Spire by Delilah S Dawson

I turned the corner, and my soul left my body.

My wife says I walked around slack-jawed, not speaking, not noticing anyone or anything else.

It was our first trip to Galaxy’s Edge, at Disneyland.

We’d been walking around the other areas of the park all day, in the lingering heat of early October, 2019. I’d wanted to go to Galaxy’s Edge straight away, but our friend had insisted we wait till the sun went down. When the crowds would thin, and the lights and special effects on the buildings would come out.

She was right.

Because when we finally made it there, the park was perfect. Not empty, but not crowded. Cool enough to walk around, but not yet cold.

And everything was lit up.

I’ve been ambiguous about a lot of things Disney has done with the Star Wars franchise. But that day, in that park, I forgave them everything.

Because they nailed it.

The streets, the buildings, the design of the doors, the mother-fucking Milennium Falcon sitting right there, looking every inch a hunk of junk that’s ready to race around the galaxy. They even got the sound of the floors in the Falcon right, our shoes click-clacking on the floor panels exactly as if we were being followed around by a foley artist from Lucasfilm.

It was…uncanny.

And I wanted to go back the very next day.

As you can imagine, though, we haven’t been. We told ourselves we could return in the spring of 2020, just in time for my birthday.

What naïve summer children we were.

Thanks to the pandemic, there’s no return trip in my near future. No immersion in the world of Black Spire Outpost.

Except through fiction.

So I picked up Dawson’s book set on the world the park is meant to represent. I wanted to go back there, even for a moment, to let her words guide my imagination in invoking the spirit of the place.

Too much to ask, perhaps. But I had high hopes after reading Dawson’s Phasma, where she introduced two new characters — Vi Moradi and Cardinal — while building out Phasma’s backstory. That turned out to be a Mad-Max-via Star Wars tale wrapped inside a spy story; an incredible balancing act.

And once again, Dawson pulls it off, weaving a high-stakes story with a small-scale focus. She brings back both Vi and Cardinal, filling out more of their arcs and letting both of them shine.

But.

Something bothered me all throughout the book. I didn’t know what it was at first, just a vague unease in my mind as I read along.

It wasn’t until halfway through the novel that I realized what it was: the colonial attitude of Vi and the Resistance towards Batuu (the planet on which Black Spire Outpost is located).

Let me explain. No spoilers, I promise.

When the story begins, Batuu is not involved in the conflict between the Resistance the First Order. It’s too small, too unimportant. The war has passed it by.

Which is one reason Vi is selected to go there, as some place the First Order won’t be paying attention to.

Logical on the face of it. But it’s the start of my problems with the story.

Because no one on Batuu invites the Resistance there. No one on Batuu wants to be involved in the conflict, at all.

The Resistance just assumes they have the right to build an outpost there, regardless of what the local population wants.

Which means they assume they have the right to bring the war there. To bring violence and death with them. Because they know the First Order is going to eventually discover said base, and when they do, they will respond with oppressive force.

And throughout her stay there, Vi repeatedly acts like a colonial officer sent to a “backwards” place:

  • She quickly makes a deal to steal an ancient artifact and use it to bargain for supplies (instead of leaving it alone, as she has no rights to it)
  • She assumes the right to squat in ancestral ruins that the people on Batuu consider sacred
  • She receives medical care from a local elderly woman, which saves her life, and her thanks is to rip the woman’s only help — her grandson — away from her. She thinks she’s right to do so, as it’s “for the greater good”
  • She’s constantly saying things like “Don’t they realize I’m doing this for their own good?” every time she can’t bend someone to her will
  • When she finds herself using local expressions and greetings, she doesn’t think of it as being respectful, but as “going native”

I could go on.

It’s a frustrating flaw in an otherwise fantastic book. I like Vi, I like the other characters, I like the story, I even like the ending.

But the constant attitude of Vi and the Resistance that “we know better than you, so we’re going to make these choices for you” is so…belittling, so arrogant. It feels out of character for a movement that says it’s all about free will. And yet totally in line with the way we Westerners usually interact with other countries.

I still recommend the book. It’s the next best thing to being there, in the park. Which is an incredible achievement, despite the problematic nature of some of its plot points.

Keeping Score: October 2, 2020

I’ve been having incredibly vivid dreams.

Dreams that fade from memory when I wake up.

Parts of them linger, though. An accusation that was hurled at me. A song someone else was singing.

I think it means my unconscious mind is…bored? I haven’t worked on anything new in a while, since I decided to focus on the novel edits. And as I near the end of the novel, those edits are becoming more re-phrasing and less re-writing. Less work for my imagination to do.

So I wonder if that’s why my dreams have suddenly become full-color 3D rousing soundtrack level productions. It’s my unconscious saying “give me something new to work on!” while I keep saying “not yet.”

Because I do lean on my unconscious mind a lot when writing. Drafting or outlining, I’ll often hit a wall, a place in the story where I’m not sure where to go, and I’ll stop there for the day. Literally sleep on the problem, and come back the next day.

Usually, by the time I return to the work, I’ve got a solution. My unconscious has chewed on the problem all night, and delivers it up to me when I need it.

After…well, years…of working together like that, I’m wondering if my unconscious misses it. Even in the midst of a pandemic, even when I think (consciously) that I can’t work on two things at once, it’s saying “let’s give it a shot.”

So I guess I will! I’ll pick up the new story again, wrap up its outline, and start drafting.

Or maybe even just dive into the drafting part, who knows? The outline’s mostly done, and it’s the writing itself that works out my unconscious the most.

What about you? Do you rely on your unconscious mind for help in your writing? Has it ever sent you a message, like it seems to be doing to me?

I Went Camping Again and All I Had was This T-Shirt

Let’s try this again, shall we?

“Where’s my backpack?”

It’s Friday evening. We’ve just unpacked the car on this, our second weekend camping trip.

And my backpack is missing.

The backpack that contains everything non-food I brought for the trip: my clothes, my sunscreen, my toothpaste. A jacket for chilly mornings. A hat for when we go hiking. A book for reading during downtime. Extra solar-powered lights, so we don’t have to setup the tent in the dark.

Even the lower parts of my camping pants, which can detach via zipper to become shorts, are in there.

My pants are literally missing.

We searched the car multiple times. Checked in every other bag. I even looked in the cooler, in case it had somehow been shoved in there along with the food and soda.

It was gone.

Later, after we got home, we saw it laying on the floor of the garage, waiting to be loaded into the car. Left alone, like a kid picked last for a basketball team.

So I had to go the weekend without it.

I slept, ate, hiked, all in the same clothes for three days. My scent was…not good, let’s say, by the end of things.

And while we were hiking through the desert, with scraggly succulents clawing at my legs, I dearly missed the lower part of my pants.

Hiking through a grove of Joshua Trees

But everything else? We made do.

I borrowed my wife’s hat for hiking, and she used a spare umbrella we keep in the car.

I borrowed her rain jacket for the mornings, to keep off the chill (It didn’t rain in the desert. She brought it as a spare, which turned out to be excellent foresight).

We shared sunscreen and bug spray.

And avoided people, of course, because it’s still an effing pandemic.

So all that other stuff? Turns out I didn’t need it. Not once.

And other than that, the trip went well! We found a way to foil the bees (bug spray to repel them + a water bowl off in the distance to attract them). We took the pups for a hike around and up some rock formations (in a day-use area, on-leash). We ate the food I spent all Friday cooking, at one point munching on some chilled paninis in the shadow of a boulder after a short hike out from the car.

We are, it seems, actually getting better at this.

The view from the bottom
View from the top
View towards the next rock formation over

Sleeping is still an issue. Between loud campers and smoke, it’s difficult to get a full eight hours. Cooking is fraught, between the invisible burner and the bee invasion.

And we seem to get caught in traffic every time we go. We apparently leave at the exact right time to get jammed up in rush hour, every weekend.

But this trip was better. The missing backpack was the biggest thing, and it turned out to be not much of an issue at all.

We’re already planning our next trip out.

Keeping Score: September 25, 2020

I can’t believe Breonna Taylor’s killers are going to walk free.

I mean, I can believe it, in the sense that racism is real and cops are killers and they’re killers because they kill and get away with it in this country.

But it’s just…hard to grasp that after all we’ve been through, these United States, in 2020, a group of people could decide it’s just fine to charge into the home of one of their fellow citizens and murder them, so long as the murderers are wearing badges.

It’s also hard for me to wrap my head around the President of the United States saying for months that the only election he could lose is a fraudulent one, and there’s no howls of indignation from his side of the aisle. No Senators lining up to condemn his words and ask that the House open a new impeachment investigation.

Nothing. Not a fucking peep.

Meanwhile in my state, in supposedly progressive California, we still use inmates as firefighters, paying them perhaps a dollar a day, which is slave labor by any other name. And once they’ve served their time, if they happened to have been born somewhere else, we hand them over to ICE for deportation.

Oh, and there’s still a pandemic on, so walking around outside to enjoy the air newly-cleared of smoke and ash means constantly dodging people who aren’t wearing masks.

So it’s all I can do right now, when I’m not doomscrolling, to keep editing the novel. One chapter at a time.

I feel like I should be making more progress. Editing more than one chapter a day. Maybe even racing to the finish line.

Or picking up the story I was outlining a few months ago, and starting to actually put words to paper.

But I can’t.

I just…can’t.

The writing spirit is very willing, but the writing flesh, the meaty brain and hands that would summon words from the void, are quite busy right now.

So I press on, one chapter at a time. I’m not stopping, but I’m not able to move any faster right now.

Because this book’s become even more important to me, lately.

It’s about prisons. It’s about all the different kinds of people that get locked up, and why. It’s about exploitation, and greed, and how it’s all kept going by the people that look the other way. The ones that hold their noses so they can benefit.

It’s also about forgiveness, and change. About making yourself vulnerable again, after holding onto a hurt for so long.

I want to finish it. I need to finish, to have this story told. To share it.

There’s not much else I can do, so I’m doing this.

Voting. Donating. Speaking up.

And writing.

Good Economics for Hard Times, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

A frustrating book. One minute, it’ll be knee-deep in the blinders and false-assumptions of economics, the next it’ll flip and call out economists for being too focused on GDP and not enough on human dignity.

That kind of whiplash makes me not trust anything the authors say. They’re too inconsistent for me to be able to piece together a coherent approach or worldview for them.

Or argue with their takes. I mean, how do you approach someone who believes the B.S. that Silicon Valley has been spouting for decades about being “disruptive” (instead of the truth: they’re VC funds chasing the bubble-high returns of monopoly) but also admits that increasing automation can displace people who should be helped?

Or a team that argues that GDP should not be used to measure growth anymore — and even that growth is not that important — but also uses GDP growth in their arguments for other policies (for example, that immigration does not hurt the societies that accept immigrants)?

It’s all over the place.

If anything, this book further convinces me of the limits of current economic thinking. So many times, the authors posit a problem (“why don’t people move around more?”) that has obvious answers as soon as your take your head out of the economic sand.

I mean, so many of the things that make it hard for them to “explain” why humans act the way they do are fundamental ideas in economics that have been debunked.

Amazon isn’t profitable because of its size. Amazon was a business failure for decades, that Bezos kept afloat through his access to capital. Only in the last few years, when it’s become an illegal monopoly and so can flood the moat around its market, has Amazon turned a profit.

The authors swallow the Amazon line because they’re still beholden to the economic idea that bigger means more efficient. But anyone that’s ever worked in a large org knows that bigger organizations are less efficient than smaller ones. They just wield more economic power, and so can remain large.

And they find it hard to explain why people don’t move around more (from poorer places to wealthier ones) only because they rely on the economic model of human behavior, which posits that people always act to increase their wealth, and do so efficiently.

Which is obvious bunk to anyone who has, you know, spent time around actual people.

The authors whiff on basically every issue they address. They find it hard to calculate the costs or benefits of social media, when Facebook’s balance sheet is publicly available (proving social media is big business). They advocate for helping immigrants find their way in a new society, without pointing out that the policies they recommend — job matching, housing, child care — would benefit everyone if implemented universally, not just the displaced (and so be more politically viable).

In the end, I think they themselves sum up the book’s “insights” best:

Economics is too important to be left to economists.

Well said.

Keeping Score: September 18, 2020

I’m turning the editing corner, into the final third of the book.

I’m a little nervous about this section. The middle edits were smooth sailing, but the closer I get to the end, the more things need to line up perfectly. I need to make sure threads are getting wrapped up, that I haven’t skipped any scenes, that everything makes sense.

I need to keep the whole novel in my head at this point, basically, in order to keep it all consistent through the end.

And the end, of course, is the most complicated part of the book. It’s where the main conflict gets resolved, via multiple timelines and a perspective shift.

I hope it works. I hope I can hold it all together.

Because if I can, if I do, then this round of edits will be finished. And I can start sending it out to beta readers, to finally get feedback from another pair of eyeballs than mine.

And maybe, just maybe, have their reviews back in time to make final adjustments, and have it ready to send to agents by the end of the year.

It is…a tight deadline. But we live in hope, don’t we?

Beware the Thirsty Bees: First Time Camping in Joshua Tree

We went camping in Joshua Tree for the first time this weekend.

My last camping trip was over thirty years ago. I was seven or eight, and I spent the entire three days refusing to use the filthy communal restrooms and getting bitten by mosquitoes.

It was not a good trip. I never really thought I’d ever try camping again.

But the pandemic has shifted things there, as it has in so many others.

My wife and I love to travel, but there’s no way we can risk staying in a hotel or taking a plane anymore. She has a clotting disorder, and I have asthma, two of those “co-morbidities” they blame when someone dies of Covid-19. We’ve been social distancing since March: No friends, no family, no exposure. We can’t risk our health staying indoors with other people for any length of time.

But camping’s not indoors! So long as we’re able to drive there — buying gas while masked up and wrapping our hands in a waste-disposal bag before touching anything — we can stay, outside, and keep other people at a distance. Low risk of exposure, high risk of hearing coyotes howl at night (but more on that later).

Beyond wanting to travel, though, we have an emergency waiting to happen, in the form of my wife’s mother. She’s in her upper 70s, and lives 1,500 miles away, in Arkansas. If she has an accident, or any kind of health incident, it’s up to us to get there and take care of her and my brother-in-law (who has special needs). We can’t fly anymore, so we’ll have to drive. And neither of us want to try to drive that whole distance without sleeping.

So camping is the only safe way for us to travel, for any reason.

Being proper nerds, we did a lot of research first. Read blog posts about camping with pups (we have two), how big of a tent to get, where to go for your first trip (close to home, which is why we chose Joshua Tree), even what pants to wear. We bought everything that was recommended, we loaded it all into the car, and we set off.

Ah, what fools we were!

And still, we were not prepared.

Not prepared for how loud the campground gets at night, when everyone returns from hiking and sets about drinking and smoking and cutting up. Long past midnight, we’d hear people singing and carrying on. Both nights we were there, I finally broke down and asked people to keep it down till morning, so we could sleep.

Not prepared for how long it really takes to setup camp. At home, when we practiced, we had everything up and ready in 30 minutes. But out there, at night (once), or in the heat of the day (the second time), it takes longer, and it feels much much longer. Between getting there, setting up the first night, then deciding to switching campgrounds the next day, then packing up for good the last day, I think we spent most of our time just setting up and tearing down.

Not prepared for the, um, toilet situation. I’ll spare you the details, but basically we couldn’t use the communal toilets, so we brought our own. And…let’s just say “leaving no trace” is good for the environment but not enjoyable in any shape or form.

And not prepared for the bees! Those thirsty, thirsty, bees.

They swarmed our water jug. They swarmed our food while we were cooking. They swarmed our toilet (I told you it wasn’t fun). And they were aggressive, too, the little buggers, as if we owed them something. Sometimes the only way to get them off was to run by the water jug, whose sweet smells of moisture would pull them away.

Our campsite, before the bees descended on us.

So after coming back, I’m stiff, I’m sore, I haven’t slept well in two days, and any buzzing makes me clench.

But we’re going back in two weeks! Why?

One, because we have to. We simply have to get better at camping if we’re going to be able to come to my wife’s mother’s aid when she needs us.

Two, because this was just our first trip! We were bound to mess it up, no matter how much we prepared.

And we can fix a lot of what went wrong!

Choosing the right campground from the start (we’ve already reserved it) means we won’t have to waste time breaking down and setting up twice.

The backdrop for our second and final campsite. Unbeatable, right?

Making meals ahead of time and bringing them along (rather than cooking) will mean less water exposed for the bees to swarm on (and less fuss setting up camp).

Taking a pavilion with us will mean we have some shade from the sun, no matter what time of day it is.

Using the rain fly on the tent will keep out smoke at night, so we can breathe.

Packing less ice in the cooler will make it lighter, and easier to find things we pack in there. And that means more room for things like water and soda; we packed water bottles, but left them out of the cooler, which is a thing so foolish in hindsight I want to reach back in time and slap myself for it. No soda meant that my wife’s headache from sun exposure and dehydration joined forces with caffeine withdrawal to take her out for the latter half of our last full day there.

And leaving the pups at their “camp” (an outdoor boarder) will mean we can explore the park this time, taking trails and hikes that they aren’t allowed on (which is all of them, I mean they want to keep it wild and let the animals that live there feel safe, so dogs aren’t allowed anywhere except roads and campsites).

The trail starts just outside our camp, but we can’t go…

So we’re doing it again! Wish us luck; or better yet: Got any tips to share for two tenderfoots who are trying to get this right?

Keeping Score: September 11, 2020

It struck me this morning that the pace at which I come up with new story ideas has slowed down.

Time was I couldn’t go a day without being struck by some story idea, and having to write it down.

These days, I feel like all of my ideas are about the book or the story I’m currently working on. Nothing new, no bolts of lightning, just new ways of looking at the characters or the situation I’m already creating.

And that made me nervous. Like, what if the well’s run dry? What if once I finish these stories, that’s it? Nothing else comes?

To banish those thoughts, I remind myself of two things.

First, it’s a pandemic. Not to mention my state is currently on fire (the evidence of which is clearly visible in the sky outside my window). I’m allowed to feel a bit more stressed, and that means my brain isn’t functioning at 100%.

Second, it’s okay to not be constantly throwing out new ideas. In fact, it’s a good thing. Plowing my creative energy into what I’m working on, rather than dreaming up new work to take on, is exactly what I should be doing. The fact that my brain doesn’t feel the need to go wandering for a new story to work on means this story’s interesting and deep enough to keep it occupied.

It’s a positive sign, not a negative one. And it should be embraced.

As for the novel itself, work continues. I’m still going through a chapter a day, giving myself the time to really look at each scene and fix the things that need fixing. A line of dialog that doesn’t work. Some blocking that no longer makes sense.

Okay, not everything. Some things I’m leaving for another pass.

Like in the last chapter I edited, there’s a shift in one character’s dialog. They go from speaking somewhat formal English to a less-formal syntax. It’s subtle, and it still sounds like the character, but it’s there.

I like the shift, and I think it’s appropriate for the situation in that chapter. But in order to keep it, I need to go through and make sure that shift happens every time that situation comes up, so it feels deliberate, and not like a mistake.

Alternatively, I could go through and make the character’s dialog pattern the same everywhere. That might be easier, but I think there’s something that will be lost if I do that. There’s information encoded in the way they shift their speech according to who they’re speaking to, and I’d hate to lose that.

So yes, even as I go through this pass, I know I’m going to need to do another. But that next pass will be more focused, and thus faster, than this one. At least, that’s the intent.

What about you? When you do your editing, do you tackle everything in each pass? Or do you break it up into different read-throughs?