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?

Keeping Score: April 23, 2021

Found this article in the New York Times (I know) that rather perfectly captures where I’ve been, these past few weeks, and where I still am: Not depressed, exactly, but languishing.

I link to the article not because it’s got a pop-culture ready mental diagnosis, but because it also talks about practical ways to cope with it. Small goals, like finishing another level in Duolingo. And any task that takes you out of yourself and into a mental state of flow, whether it’s bingeing Netflix or playing a game with friends.

Sounds a bit like writing, eh? At least, writing in small chunks, giving myself enough time to enter a flow mental state.

I think it’s that last part that I’ve been missing, in terms of my daily writing. I’ve been trying to squeeze it in, sometimes just in 15 minutes at the end of the day. Which is one day to make sure I always hit my 250 words, but is no way to let myself fall into the story, to lose myself in the writing.

So I’m going to try altering my routine a bit. Give myself at least an hour to write. No distractions, no time limits. And no pressure to increase my word count, either. If I give myself time to really focus on the story, that’ll be enough.

I’m also going to start rewarding myself, again, for hitting that daily work goal. Not sure what to use as a reward (I’m already eating plenty of chocolate). Maybe money put into a savings account, like Jonathan Maberry does? Or maybe a new game at the end of the week, if I’ve written my total words?

What do you use, if you reward yourself for getting your writing done?

Keeping Score: April 16, 2021

I got my second shot!

Wasn’t quite as easy as getting my first. Yesterday was the first day of general vaccine eligibility in California, so even though I got there around 30 minutes early, I spent most of that time waiting in a socially-distanced line. But the folks there were all still friendly and efficient, and I made it through and out without incident.

I could feel a difference in this shot; felt like more material getting pushed into my shoulder. And about ten minutes after I started feeling light-headed. Had to put my head between my knees and breathe till it passed.

It did pass, though, and I went back to work that day. My left arm (where I got the shot) was — and continues to be — basically useless, too sore to raise up higher than mid-line. Other than that, I had the same wave of fatigue hit me as last time, shortly after I wrapped up work yesterday. Which is why I missed my daily word count for the first time in two months 😬

I might be able to make it up today; we’ll see. I feel mostly fine, though I’ve got some of the symptoms of my asthma being triggered: stuffy nose, lungs can’t quite get a full deep breath (it doesn’t hurt exactly, but it definitely feels like something I shouldn’t do too often). I don’t think I have a fever, which is good.

Will probably still spend most of the day in bed, just in case. Better to take it easy, I think. That doesn’t stop my from having my laptop in bed with me, though (as you can see). Hopefully I can get some writing done in-between doses of tea and naps.

I hope that wherever you are, the vaccine rollout continues, and if you haven’t yet been able to get it, that you soon will be. We need to kick this virus, so we can spend more of our time and energy building a better world than the one we lost in the pandemic.

1990s Album Covers: B&W, Please, and Don’t Forget the Fire

Been on a bit of a nostalgia trip recently — no connection to turning 42, I’m sure — and I noticed all these album covers from 90s alternative bands that are in black and white, and usually with something on fire.

Don’t believe me? Ok, here’s exhibit A:

Better Than Extra’s Friction, Baby. Released 1996. No fire here, but it’s a grayscale image, and the fire is implied, no? That torn piece of paper, plus the album’s title, captures the moment just before the match is lit.

Here’s another one, where the fire moves from implicit to explicit:

Hole, Celebrity Skin, released 1998. Sharper tones in this one, more contrast. Shot of the band in the foreground, looking nonchalant as a tree burns in the background. Did they set it aflame with the power of their rock? Was their cool just too much for the tree to take? We’ll never know.

The trend wasn’t just for American bands, oh no. Here’s German band Fury in the Slaughterhouse’s cover for their 1992 album, Mono:

Super-extreme stubble close-up. The face is weary, resigned. Shot is overall very dark. Meant to evoke the ennui in the album’s hit single, “Every Generation Got Its Own Disease”?

Content Warning for the next two: Self-Harm, Nudity.

I’d be remiss not to mention the cover of one of the greatest albums of the 90s, released by one of my favorite bands:

Rage Against the Machine, self-titled album, 1992. If you don’t know the history behind that photo, well…here’s the wikipedia link. Suffice to say that it perfectly fits the album’s themes of resistance to (racist, capitalist) authority.

But how far back does the trend go? One of the earliest examples I can find is from 1988, with Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking:

Notice all the elements are already there: the fire, the black and white retro chic, the nonchalance on the human faces. Ahead of their time in more ways than musically?

Keeping Score: April 9, 2021

Writing this past week has been…well, difficult is too small a word for it. When my motivation for even getting out of bed has been snuffed out, it’s impossible to convince myself that the words I’m setting down are worth anything.

And yet they must be written. Because who knows how long this funk will last, and in the meantime the novel needs to be completed. Need to get this draft done, this junk draft, so that I’ll have something to edit later. Not that I’m looking forward to later, exactly, but I know it’s coming.

Thank goodness I stopped being an inspiration writer — that is, someone who writes only when inspired to — a good while ago. Because at the moment, inspiration isn’t just hard to summon for me, it’s completely gone. I’m writing like someone re-learning how to walk: laying down one word at a time, till a sentence is formed, and then moving on to the next. Word by word, line by line. Till my daily word count is reached, and I close the laptop.

I’m not blocked. I’m not afraid of the scene I’m working on. I’m just depressed.

I’m trying different things to lighten my mood, of course. I started walking in the mornings again, and I can now vouch for the runner’s high as a way to trick my body’s chemistry into lifting the sadness for a bit. It’s doesn’t last, but for a little while I feel…not normal, but I stop feeling like crying all the time.

Crying is a constant danger at the moment. Anytime I’m left with my thoughts for too long, I start to tear up. Which makes writing dangerous, in a way; I’ve got to think to put these words together, but every time I start to imagine the scene before me, my thoughts will veer into taking an inventory of all the reasons I’m worthless and unneeded, and I break down again. I know it’s my brain inventing reasons for my sadness, but still. It’s surprisingly good at it!

And trying to do the opposite — take inventory of all the things I have to be happy about — doesn’t help, either, because it just gives me a list of reasons I’m an ungrateful wretch for daring to be sad.

There’s no winning here. There’s just endurance, and a hope that it will pass. I’ve had dark moods before — never this bad, but still — and they’ve all come and gone like clouds in a thunderstorm. This one will, too, given time. I hope.

42

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know!”

There are lots of ways to find out you’re depressed. For me, it was breaking down crying in the kitchen Monday morning, after berating my wife for my (upcoming) birthday present.

Not my finest moment.

I turned 42 yesterday, my second birthday during the pandemic. And I want to say I’m going to throw a big party once we’re all vaccinated, that I’m fine, everything’s fine here, how are you?

But I’m not fine. I’m tired of being scared, of having to leap out of the way of folks walking by me on the sidewalk. Of asking delivery people to back up from the door and pull up their mask before I step out to show them my ID. Of wondering if this is the week I get the call that my mom’s in the hospital with Covid, that there’s going to be another family funeral I can’t attend.

My wife says I don’t like surprises, and she’s right. This year has been one long series of surprises, one after the other, combined with constant waiting for the other shoe to drop and the disease to claim me, or someone else close to me, or all of the above.

So I’m not fine. I’m lethargic and blasé and if I pause for too long between activities, I start to cry. I can’t get excited about…anything. Not something silly like the new Godzilla vs Kong movie (which, pre-pandemic, I would’ve flipped for). Not something abstract like my wife and her mother deciding once and for all that she will not be moving in with us, giving us a sense of stability we haven’t had since 2015. I want to be excited. I want to be joyful.

But I can’t, and before my wife made me turn and look at my depression, I thought the problem was in the things themselves, not me. I had all kinds of rationalizations for why her news wasn’t exciting (“because she could change her mind”). Why I couldn’t make it through a re-watch of the first two Godzilla movies (“they’re boring”). But those were just excuses, mental defenses to keep me from admitting that I was not, in fact, doing well.

And I think I haven’t been doing well, for at least a few weeks now. I’ve just been covering it up. Hiding it.

I hope that wherever you are, mentally and physically, that you’re able to be honest with yourself. That you’ve got someone who will keep you honest. And that if you’re feeling down, that you let yourself feel it, and don’t try to fight it off or deny it, which just makes it worse.

This time will pass, as all things do. But while it’s here, let’s not pretend. Sometimes, we’re just not okay. And that’s all right.

Short Book Reviews: March 2021

Ok, I didn’t get this posted in time for the end of March, but better late then never, eh?

Continuing the theme of posting short reviews of the things I read each month, here’s what I’ve consumed since last time, again in reverse order (so, the most recent book first):

Seven-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M Valente

The first book is also one I couldn’t finish. I love the premise of this book: a Western retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. And Valente is one of my favorite authors! Should have been right up my alley.

But the whole thing is written in dialect, which is annoying for me at the best of times. And when it’s an author from the Northeast trying (emphasis on the trying) to write an entire novella in a Southwestern accent, this Texan just can’t take it.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

This one I enjoyed! Very well-crafted fantasy. Hard to say anything without spoiling the plot, but basically it weaves in themes from Frankenstein, the Wizard of Oz, multiverses, and time travel (of a sort…you’ll see) to construct something wholly original. I’ll be studying this one for pointers on style and craft.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

I didn’t think it was possible to make a compelling single-monster horror. But Jones has done it, and done it with characters and traditions (Blackfeet and Crow) you don’t normally find in American literature. This one was so good I read it all in one gulp, in a single day.

Four Lost Cities, by Annalee Newitz

Another one I wanted to like, but couldn’t get through. It’s supposed to be a survey of four historical cities that, for various reasons, were abandoned, even after long periods of growth and popularity. It promised some insights into the debates we’re starting to have about the sustainability of modern cities, and whether climate change will mean their inevitable decline.

Instead, I kept running into mischaracterizations and outright mistakes. One glaring error is in the location of Pompeii, which the author has right in the text but wrong on the maps. One mischaracterization is the author projecting the myth of the noble savage onto the population of an ancient city, even after they relay an exchange with an expert that lays bare the flaws of their assumption!

I can’t read nonfiction that I can’t trust, so I put this one down.

Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner

Wrote about this one last week. Recommended for anyone that’s even thinking of writing horror.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

King mentions in the intro to this one that he wrote this book partially because he wanted to see if it was possible to wed a literary story about a small Maine town with a Dracula-inspired vampire tale. That duality runs throughout the book, with passages that wouldn’t be out of place in the New Yorker followed by harrowing chapters filled with dread. So in reading it, I felt like I was watching the evolution of King the writer in real time, with his literary aspirations slowly giving way to his mastery of horror techniques.

Oh, and the story absolutely still works, even after all this time!

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Holy shit, this one. Another book that hooked me from the first page, and held me until I’d swallowed it all in a single day. An absolutely brilliant — and ambiguous — take on Lovecraftian horror. I immediately went and ordered more LaValle after finishing it.

Genghis Kahn by Paul Ratchnevsky

Another book I picked up after it was referenced on acoup.blog. Not as readable as The Mongol Art of War, but covers similar ground. Interesting for insights into how Genghis built up his empire, via political manuevering as shrewd policy as much as through battle.

Keeping Score: April 2, 2021

I feel like I’ve been to a horror workshop this past week.

It started with reading Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark, effectively a textbook (complete with exercises!) for writing better horror stories. He breaks down the different sub-genres, he explores what distinguishes horror from other types of fiction, and he pulls back the curtain on different techniques to use in horror to produce different effects.

I’ve read other writing books before — and will read more, I’ll take advice wherever I can find it — and always come away with at least one or two changes to make to the way I write. Writing in the Dark was no different in that respect, but it went one step further: It changed the way I read.

Shortly after finishing it, I picked up a copy of Salem’s Lot. I realized I haven’t been reading much horror lately, so I thought going back to one of the classics would be a good way to dive in.

And I was right, but not in the way I’d intended. Because instead of just noticing things like the parallels in the story to the original Dracula, or getting sucked into the story — both of which happened, it’s still a damn fine book — I started noticing things about the way King wrote it. Places where he was writing in a more literary voice, versus genre. Places where he slowed time down by writing everything out in minute detail, to ramp up tension. Places where he shifted point of view. How in the more “horror” chapters, he wrote in a perspective that clung tightly to one character’s train of thought, to show their reactions to what was happening, which is where dread lives. Often those chapters had very little happen in them at all, but the characters reacted to them as if they were scared out of their wits, and thus carried the reader with them.

It was like Waggoner was standing over my shoulder as I read, pointing to passages and remarking on the techniques being used in each. I could still appreciate the story King was telling, still feel the chill of being hunted by an ancient vampire in a New England fall. But I could also see how he was telling the story, and think about how I could use those techniques in my own fiction.

Next I read Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians, a horror novel which came out just last year. I had the same experience with it, though — at least for me — the seams were less visible in this one. That is, it was harder for me to pull myself out of it, and see how it was built. But it was still possible, and I noticed both some of the same techniques King used and others being brought to bear, techniques more commonly used for monster books, which Jones’ is (and King’s wasn’t).

I’m now reading Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame, and having much the same experience. Loving the story, falling into the book, but on the way, paying attention to the way she’s telling the tale, from sentence length to parenthetical remarks to event ordering (no spoilers, you’ll need to pick up a copy and read it). It’s another finely constructed book, and I feel I’m appreciating it on a whole different level (and learning from it).

All of which is to say: I’ve started drafting a new horror story (finally).

It’s the one I’ve been outlining forever, afraid to commit it to (electronic) paper. This week I took the plunge, working on it after my words for the novel were done for the day. I’m drafting it in much the same way as the novel, working scatter-shot, drawing up bits of dialog before anything else, and then stitching it all together.

But this time, I’m consciously thinking about the different horror techniques I’ve seen, and looking for ways to apply them. So after finishing the dialog and blocking for one section, I went back and added in the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions, to pull the perspective tighter in on them. I’m also not shying away from characters in conflict, or physically fighting; taking the time to block the sequences in my head and then setting them down. Because in this story, at least, there will be pain, and there will be blood. And if my protagonist is not going to flinch, neither can I.

It’s still the first draft, so it’s going to need a lot of editing, but I’m already feeling better about it. More confident. Like I’m writing in a more deliberate mode, more aware of what I’m doing, and why. Here’s hoping my confidence is justified, once it’s done.