What is a Citizen, Anyway?

I’ve recently realized there’s a large gap in my education: I don’t know how to be a citizen.

I know how to be a worker. Long hours spent in school forced to sit still and be quiet at a desk while taking orders from an authority figure prepared me for life in the 21st century economy. Years spent working for minimum wage — as a fast-food cook — or less than minimum wage — as a server — taught me crucial survival skills like Smiling at the Asshole and Let the Boss Be Right. Not to mention first-hand experience with the inherent conflict between workers and owners that lies at the heart of capitalism.

I know how to be a husband. Not always a good one, to be sure, but a husband all the same. Popular culture, family examples, and years of church gave me a plethora of role-models to choose from. There’s the drunken layabout coupled with teary-eyed professions of love (my dad’s preferred mode). There’s the stalwart family patriarch, holding everything — and everyone — in no matter what. There’s the queer model of radical equality, or the jealous hawk, or the laissez-faire bro. Lots of choices, an entire industry of self-help books, all geared around making sure I know how to play that role.

But what about being a citizen?

There was no class for that in my schooling. There’s no section of the bookstore on citizenship to read up on. No MasterClass. I can get courses on being a better cook or learning to play the cello or the exact right way to pose so my Instagram posts go viral. But nothing on how to be a better citizen. There, I’m on my own.

Is it enough to vote? I mean, I do vote, every chance I get. I scour election materials and try to sniff out which candidate is actually going to do some good. But I hear now that “just showing up on Election Day” is not enough, that we need to involved citizens.

Is it voting and protesting, then? I protested the Second Gulf War, Bush’s candidacy in 2004, and Trump’s Inauguration. I’ve marched for Women’s Day, and I’ll march for Black Lives Matter. But that too feels hollow, in a way. Not just because the Second Gulf War went ahead as (not really) planned, or that Bush got re-elected, or that Trump never got removed from office. Participating in those marches felt…good, cathartic, even. But also ephemeral. Nothing was really at risk, for me, in those marches. And nothing permanent came out of it. I came, I marched, I went back to work the next day. So when I hear terms like “performative ally-ship,” they hit very close to home, for me.

Is it being an activist? But — assuming no one can be an activist for every cause, so we should all pick one to pursue — if we all become activists, what distinguishes us from just another series of lobbies or interest groups?

So seriously, now: What does being a citizen (not just a consumer, not just worker) mean?

I suppose it used to mean, and may still mean, participating in civil society. But what’s that? There’s no Chamber of Commerce for me to join, because I work for an international company, not my own business. There’s no union, either, for the same reason. There’s no PTA, because I don’t have kids. The City Council meets behind semi-closed doors in the middle of the afternoon on a week-day, when absolutely no one that works for a living can attend.

I guess that leaves volunteer organizations. Habitat for Humanity. A food bank. The local chapter of a political party, even. Some kind of group with a concrete mission, some change they make in people’s lives, on a daily basis.

Is that it? And, maybe more importantly: Is that enough?

Keeping Score: June 11, 2021

Got another short story rejection today. This one was personal, at least; not a form letter, but a description of an historical error that threw the editor out of the story.

It hurts a little less, I guess? To know I got close enough to being accepted that the magazine’s editor read the story, and rejected it themselves. But it’s also frustrating, to have such high hopes for a story, only to see it constantly fail to get published.

And now, of course, I’m diving into more historical research, and thinking of ways to fix the error they called out, while keeping the heart of the story intact. Yet another revision to make before sending it back out.

Or perhaps it’s time to let this one go. Sometimes I think I need to take these rejections less personally. To treat them as less of a challenge, and more like little slips of paper slipped under my door while I’m working. So long as I’m producing more stories to send out, does it matter that much if one of them doesn’t work as well as I’d like? Or to flip it around: If I’m happy with a story, does it matter so much that any particular editor isn’t?

Of course I’m never completely happy with a story. There’s always something to change, some phrase to tweak or scene to re-think.

That’s the thing: I’m always ready to revise. I crave feedback, and once I get it I honor it by making changes. But is that the best way to improve as a writer? Am I making things better, or just delaying working on something new, something to which I can apply all of my lessons learned afresh?

What about you? When you get a rejection, does it spur you to keeping editing? Or do you march on to the next project?

Keeping Score: June 4, 2021

I finished the eternal section!

Finally laid down all the connective text it needed. Final word count: 34,089 words, for just that one part of the book (!).

It’s a huge milestone. Means not only that I can move on to the next part of the book, a shorter interlude before the next large chunk, but I’m about 1/3 of the way through the book as a whole: 49,594 words. I said this was going to be a door-stopper, right?

I feel like I need to take a moment and look back at where I started. Not to brag, but just to survey the view from this part of the summit, so to speak. Because otherwise the moment’s going to be lost, mixed in with all the others spent putting one word in front of the others, trudging up the slope.

When I started out on this book, last November, I had a plan in a very loose sense of the word. I knew the beats I wanted to hit, and the general shape of the story, but that was it. I didn’t really know who these characters were, or what could motivate them through these events. I also didn’t know if I could even write this kind of historical novel, where I leap from the shores of the Baltic Sea to the Central Asian steppe and back again.

But I have. I can. It might be junk, but the first draft of the steppe sequence is done. I conjured up a whole family from scratch! I worked out how to track a dragon across the plains. And discovered how a pre-teen could summon her inner strength to strike back at that dragon for her father’s death.

That’s not nothing! Again, it’s just the first draft, and I can already see that it’ll need a lot of edits. But after months of grinding away at it, wondering if I’d ever see real progress, wondering if I should just stop and spend my time doing something else, I can take heart in knowing that this piece, at least, is done. And if I can finish one section, I can finish the others. One word at a time.

So take heart, if you’ve been feeling like me! Like the work is never-ending. Afraid that none of it will be worthwhile.

Because eventually you’ll summit that mountain. And you’ll look back at where you started, and wonder how the hell you’ve come so far.

Short Book Reviews: May 2021

Took a break from my Stephen King read-a-thon to dive into some non-fiction this month.

As always, these are listed in reverse chronological order. So, the book I just finished is listed first, followed by the one I read before that, and so on.

Let’s dig in!

Creative Selection, by Ken Kocienda

Polished, refined prose. Kocienda pulls just shy of a dozen stories from his time at Apple in the early 2000s to illustrate what he sees as the principles behind their back-to-back successes in that period, from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad.

Each chapter begins with the story, and then ends with him picking it apart, revealing the particular aspect of the Apple process (really, more like goals or guidelines) that he wants to focus on.

It’s all well-told, and they’re entertaining stories, but I can’t escape the feeling that it could all have been summarized in one word: Demos.

The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Ana Partanen

Absolutely fascinating. Partanen is a journalist and a naturalized American citizen, originally from Finland, and she wrote this book in 2015-2016 after living here for several years.

Her goal is definitely not to knock the United States — she bends over backwards, in fact, to insist over and over again how much she loves Americans and was excited to live here — but to point out the widening gap between what we say we value — families, children, individual choice — and what our policies actually value. She uses a “Nordic Theory of Love” as a through-line, connecting how Nordic policies on healthcare, vacation, school, parental leave, etc all enable a greater freedom of choice for the people that live there.

Full confession: My wife and I have been contemplating a move to Northern Europe, and I picked this up as part of some research into what it might be like to live there. While I think many of the policy changes Partanen outlines would be wonderful if adopted in the United States, given our current political climate, I don’t think they’ll be adopted any time soon.

Partanen, apparently, agrees with me; she returned to Finland after getting pregnant with her first child (shortly after this book was published, in fact), and she hasn’t returned.

Needful Things, by Stephen King

More King! A later novel, this one’s a bit of door-stopper. But it’s still King at the top of his game: small-town Maine rendered in exquisite detail, slow-building tension that explodes in gory violence, and a victory so Pyrrhic as to be more like a truce.

I thought I knew the plot of this one, going in, based on parodies and knock-offs. But the real thing is much, much better, both more unsettling and harder to predict. The villain’s motivation was a bit of a letdown, to be honest, but his methods were chef’s kiss perfect.

I also felt a bit of shear between the setting as written and the setting as placed in time. Having read King’s novels from the 70s and 80s, this felt more like that time period than anything else, let alone the early 90s, when the story is supposed to take place. There were some markers laid down — I think one kid’s t-shirt has a 90s band on it — but they felt more like window-dressing. As if King had such deep knowledge of the Maine of 1960-1980 that he had trouble writing about the present. Which is perhaps why he’s returned so often in later books to writing about that exact period?

Keeping Score: May 28, 2021

So I didn’t quit. Not this week, at least 🙂

Only 686 words written so far, though, so I’ll need to play catch-up today and tomorrow, once again. I seem to end up skipping my writing for the day at least once a week, so a Friday writing marathon might end up being a regular habit. Which is fine with me, actually…wrapping up my writing in a final burst feels like a good way to roll into the weekend.

And I’ve finally got enough distance from the horror story I drafted — about two weeks — that I can go back and start revising it now. Which’ll be a nice break from the novel (again), because ye gods I’m tired of the section I’ve been working on. Writing in skip-around mode works for getting me past blockages, but makes sewing up all those missing parts kind of a drag. And it makes that connecting process a skip-around of its own, but an involuntary one, so just as I get in the flow for one area, I hit the words I’ve already written, and need to skip ahead to the next missing piece.

It’s tedious, and tedium makes it hard to push myself to get the writing done. Because it needs to be done, those missing pieces need to be filled in, lest I end up with something of a half-told story.

But it’s not very fun. The fun parts I’ve already written! That was the good thing about skipping around. Now I’m in the bad part, which is…well, something I’ve got to grit my teeth and get through.

On the other side of the tunnel of tedium is the next chapter though, where I’ve got to write about bodily trauma and some inner psychological horror as changes take hold in the point-of-view character. That’ll be fun…so long as I can convince myself I know what I’m doing when writing about this kind of physical trauma 😬 I might want to set aside a day or two for some research…

Keeping Score: May 21, 2021

It’s been a rough week for my writing.

The company I work for has had a series of cross-company events this week, and since we’ve got folks working all over the globe, they were held at a time that was convenient for basically no one. For my part, that meant getting up at 4am so I could be awake, showered, and coherent for what some days was five hours of continuous Zoom meetings.

Not conducive to writing, to say the least. I managed to throw down some words on Tuesday after work, but otherwise my brain has just been much at the end of the day. So I’ve only written 269 words on the novel this week.

The meetings are over, so I’m hoping to be able to play catch-up today and tomorrow. Reach my goal of at least 1,250 words before the sun sets on Sunday. But the shift in my schedule meant other errands have also been put off all week, and now I’ve got to juggle all of it together.

And process the short-story rejection I got on Wednesday.

This one hit me harder than I thought it would. Possibly because they’d had it for a couple months, which — once again — gave me hope that it might make it through the gauntlet this time. The form rejection I received — word-for-word the same letter I’ve gotten from the magazine before, despite a change in editors — was a bit of gut-punch, then. I guess it didn’t make it through any part of the gauntlet, after all; folks were just too busy to have even read my story (and then immediately reject it) until now.

So I’m a bit low, and questioning once again why I bother. isn’t it enough to have one job? Why am I trying to have another? Why don’t I just give it a rest, and go do something else with my time? And I don’t have any good answers this go-round.

What do you do, when you think of quitting? How do you keep putting words on the page? Or push yourself to send that story out to one more market?

Keeping Score: May 14, 2021

I finished the rough draft of the short story!

It topped out at 5,157 words, which is a little longer than I’d like. Most of the markets I want to try to sell into have a cap of around 5k. But I should be able to trim it down enough during editing that it’ll squeeze under the limit.

So I’m setting that aside for a couple of weeks, to get some distance on the story before I try to revise it. I’m picking the novel back up, meanwhile, trying to finish the same interminable section i was working on when I pivoted to the short story.

I say interminable because it seems I keep finding gaps in the story that I have to fill in now. I’ll be scrolling along, watching a continuous flow of words, when there’s a break in the narrative. And I have to stop, scroll back up, get back into the “mood” of the particular scene, and then spin a bridge across to the next one.

It’s a little tedious, but only in the sense that I can’t believe I left so many holes in the story. I’m filling them just fine, the words are flowing, thank goodness. But I’m already judging past me: Why didn’t you just keep writing the story? Did you really need to skip over writing these three paragraphs that I just put down?

The answer, of course, is that yes, I did need to skip them. At the time, I needed to leap over them in order to discover my destination. But that still means poor present-day me has to trundle along behind, paving over the potholes in the semi-paved story road.

What about you? Ever make a judgement call during drafting that you later regret, either in the same draft or later?

Keeping Score: May 7, 2021

In the spirit of being more flexible, I decided to take a break from the novel this week. Instead, I’ve been putting my word count towards the short story, pushing to get a first draft done before the week is out.

And so far, so good! I’ve written 1,076 words of my 1,250 word goal (so I’ve got to do a session today to finish out strong), and I’m currently writing the last scene in the story.

It’s a horror story, so I’m trying to use all the techniques I’ve been learning about from Writing in the Dark and all the horror novels I’ve been bingeing. Focusing on the character’s reactions to events, rather than relying on the events themselves. Sticking close to one character’s point of view, to pull the reader into the situation. Using more senses than just sight and hearing to convey the world.

And I’m leaning on the drafting techniques I’ve picked up while writing the novel. Like jotting down dialog first, or skipping around in a scene to work around a temporary block. Or working on a scene in layers, doing multiple passes to put in all the elements I want to have in a scene (dialog, thoughts, physical blocking, environment).

I feel like it’s producing a stronger first draft. One I’ll have an easier time revising later on. Not that I’m trying to be super-careful about word choice — it’s a trash draft after all — but I think the bones of the story will hold up more, when it comes time to edit. So hopefully I’ll be able to focus more on language and less on “do I need to completely rewrite this to make it more interesting?”

What about you? Do you feel like your first drafts have gotten better over time? Or have you found better ways to revise? Maybe both?

Short Book Reviews: April 2021

Fewer books read this month. Between turning 42 and getting both doses of the vaccine, I’ve been reading less (but writing more?). I’d hoped to have a fourth book done before the end of the month, but that’s going to have to wait 😦

Anyway, here are brief, non-spoilers reviews of the three books I did get through, again in reverse chronological order (so the most recently read book is first).

Carrie, by Stephen King

At this point I should just confess that I’ve decided to read all of the classic King books. Everything I missed growing up (parents!): Carrie, Cujo, Christine, Needful Things, etc.

This was King’s first book, and it’s amazing how much his writing improved between it and his second (Salem’s Lot). Carrie is a lot faster paced than the other book, but as a result I didn’t feel like I really got to know (or care about) a lot of the characters.

Even so, it’s a gut-punch of a book. Would recommend.

Trade in Classical Antiquity, by Neville Morley

A non-fiction palate-cleanser between horror novels. Recommended by the author of acoup.blog, whose insightful and detailed critiques of the “medieval” world represented in the Games of Thrones TV series drew me in.

It’s a short book, more of an extended scholarly essay than anything else. Morley’s goal here seems to be to poke holes in two of the leading schools of thought about trade in the classical Mediterranean: one that holds trade couldn’t possibly have been worth noting because of subsistence farming, and another that basically says globalization arrived thousands of years earlier than we thought.

I’m not familiar enough with those other schools to tell if that’s a straw-person argument or not. But Morley lays out his own case well, arguing for a sort of middle approach, relying on archeological evidence that shows trade in certain goods was in fact massive, while admitting the large gaps in our understanding of the period. Certainly food for thought when designing a classical-like society, or writing a story set in the classical period.

The Dead Zone, by Stephen King

Published the year I was born! King’s fifth book published under his own name.

Again I could see both the commonalities in the way he tells stories (newspaper clippings and interviews sprinkled throughout, a sharp focus on the minutiae of small-town life) and the leveling-up of his skills in the use of those techniques (and exploration of those themes).

Very much a horror-as-dread book, rather than blood-and-guts. Reminded me of his later book 11/22/63, not in the time travel aspect, but in the dilemma the protagonist faces towards the end (no spoilers, it’s worth the read). King’s rendition of the political mood of 1976 jibes with everything I’ve read about that election by recent historians, and his construction of a populist politician with evil in his heart and elections to win felt…let’s say a little prescient, after 2016?

A Note on the Casual Racism in King’s Earlier Books

While I’m reading through King’s oeuvre, and enjoying it, for the most part, there’s a few…problematic things that pop up again and again, like sour notes among an otherwise well-written symphony. And I feel the need to call them out, rather than skip over them.

Most striking, for me, in reading these now, is the way King drops at least one racist bit of imagery in each of the books I’ve read up to this point. Adjectives like “n*ardly”, or describing a character’s grossly misshapen and swollen lips as “African”.

It jerks me out of the book each time, and makes me wonder why he (or the publisher) doesn’t go back and remove it. This isn’t in character dialog, it’s narrative description, and it would be easy — very easy — to remove the short phrase that contains it without really altering the book at all. Why not change it?

More insidious is the way these books have basically no black people. In Needful Things, which I’m reading now, there’s one (one!) black character, and he’s only allowed to be a janitor, and his dialog is written…well, let’s just say King tries to render what he feels is a Black manner of speech, and it comes across as a caricature. I know some of these books were written before I was born, but I swear there were Black people in America back then, even in Maine. Leaving them out altogether feels…strange. Less like oversight, and more like an authorial blindspot.

These elements might change in his later works (and I hope they do!). And I’m certainly not trying to say anything about King the person, especially given how much time has elapsed between when he wrote these books and today. I must hope that whoever he is now, it’s a better version of himself than when he wrote these.

But these racist elements are in the books, and I feel must be called out as such.

Keeping Score: April 30, 2021

Novel’s at 44,600 words! I’m still wrapping up the section I’ve been working on for weeks now, filling in the gaps in the narrative I left behind when I jumped around to write the bigger moments in it.

Wife and I brainstormed different reward methods over the weekend, and she liked the idea of a vacation savings account. So that’s what I’ve done: Setup a new, separate account, where I’ll deposit a little bit of money each week, but only if I hit my word count goal. Then — as the pandemic lifts — we’ll use that money for travel.

I’ve also shifted my morning routine a little to give myself more time to write (an hour instead of just thirty minutes). I don’t necessarily spend all that time writing, but having that time lets me relax and get into that state of flow that both helps me get the words down and takes me out of my languishing head for a while.

So far, it’s working; I missed my daily writing on Wednesday because of some food poisoning, but I was able to make it up on Thursday by using more of my hour than normal. Combined with the mini-sprint I ended up doing on Tuesday, I’ve already hit my writing goal for the week! Looking forward to making that first deposit on Saturday morning 🙂

Speaking of the weekend, I’m hoping to get back to the short story draft. I’d like to finish it, even; it’s close to being done, if I can just nail down the visuals for the last bit. Ok, I say done, but…it’d be just the first draft. Still, gotta have the first draft before I can edit it into the second.

How about you? Made any recent changes to your writing habits, good or bad? Hit a milestone you’re proud of?