Keeping Score: January 29, 2021

‘Tis the season of the writer’s conference.

Had the Apex Magazine 15-minute workshop on Monday, which may have permanently changed the way I approach my writing. I’m on the alert now for some of my bad writing habits, and am currently going through two different stories to eliminate them.

Today, I’m attending Clarion West’s workshop on How to Write Science Fiction in a Post-Colonial World, part of their series of single-day online workshops. Similar to the Apex one, I’m not sure what to expect. I hope it’ll help me with the novel I’m writing right now (and future works), where one of my main characters is from the steppes of Central Asia. I don’t want to appropriate anyone’s culture, but I do want to showcase the diversity of the world, particularly in the time period I’m setting this story (the 18th century), which American writers tend to whitewash.

And I’m considering signing up for the Southern California Writers Conference, which is in two weeks (and also online). It was the first writers conference I attended, back when we could safely congregate inside. I got a lot out of it: I wrote two stories, got tips on plot structure, and met some great people. And now one of my fellow Writers Coffeehouse alumni (Dennis K Crosby) is one of the special guest speakers! I could use that kind of shot in the arm again (vaccine connotation very much intended).

Not that I’m currently having trouble producing, thank goodness. Novel’s at 26,099 words. I’ve patched up the seams in the scenes I’ve written so far, and moved on to the “meat” of the chapter: the POV character’s close encounter with a dragon.

I’m still writing it in bits and pieces, moving up and down the page as ideas come to me and I figure things out. It keeps me from getting hung up on any one part of the book, or worry too much about how I’m going to get from Point A to Point B. I can always make something up 🙂

And after the Apex workshop, and re-examining some of my past short stories, I’m starting to think about the connective tissue between scenes differently. As in, maybe I don’t need it, after all.

That’s not quite right. I think I, the writer, need it. I need to have written it, in order to fully understand my story. But I don’t necessarily need to show that to the reader.

Same thing with exposition. I need to know everything about my world. I need to know what the sunlight looks like in springtime. I need to know how the birds sound in the morning. I need to know which cars are driving by at the end of the day (if this world has cars). So these are all things I need to set down, to fix in my mind by fixing them in text. But I don’t need to relay those details to the reader, unless something stands out to the POV character, and affects their decisions.

It’s advice I’ve heard before, but not really felt in my bones until now. I’d always assumed my readers were lost unless I held their hand, and relied on my brevity to make the explanations palatable.

I think now I can trust the reader more. I still plan to write all the exposition, so I have it straight in my own head. But when editing I’m going to start taking it all out, and only putting things back in if a beta reader complains of being lost. Otherwise, I’m going to lean on actions and dialog to convey everything.

What about you? Is there a piece of classic writing advice that took you a while to fully understand?

No Spoiler Reviews: Cobra Kai

Cobra Kai has no right to exist, let alone be good.

It’s a spin-off of a move franchise whose third installment limped out of theaters thirty years ago. It’s centered on the villains of those movies. And because Pat Morita has passed on (RIP), it can’t include most people’s favorite character.

How did this happen? Who greenlit this? Who had the audacity to even suggest it?

And how the hell is it this friggin’ good?

Because seriously, if you put the first two seasons of The Mandalorian up against the first two seasons of Cobra Kai, Cobra Kai is the better show, hands down. It’s got funnier lines, better acting, and better characters.

Cobra Kai’s surprisingly deep, willing to show us good and bad sides of all the characters. As a result, for its first two seasons, there’s no real villain. There’s conflict, sure, and tension, hell yes, but you can sympathize with everyone. Root for everyone. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a TV show where I liked every character, but Cobra Kai pulls it off.

…for two seasons. The third season drops the “no villain” posture, and switches genres entirely. From a grounded, complex show, exploring the adult lives of Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso while also examining how their rivalry impacts their kids’ lives, Cobra Kai switches over to a YA love-triangle plot in a universe with martial-arts movie logic. Which is fine, as things go, but isn’t nearly as interesting, and is a jarring switch, after two seasons of being a rather different show. You’ll want to see all three seasons (season two ends on a bit of a cliffhanger), but be prepared for the tonal shift.

Still, if you liked the Karate Kid movies, I highly recommend Cobra Kai. It’s clearly made by people who love those movies, who could recite them line by line, because of the way they weave the backstory from the trilogy into the plot of the show. They even manage to make good plot fodder out of the third movie, which is something I didn’t think was possible!

They took their love, and built this beautiful show, that for its first two seasons stomps everything else I’ve seen recently.

Post-Game: Apex Magazine’s 15-Minute Writing Workshop

Apex Magazine is back from hiatus! One of my favorite short fiction magazines for years, Apex has consistently had fantastic stories, as shown by the many (many) awardsthey’ve won or been nominated for over the years.

I’m reading through their first new issue now. I’ll post a full review later, but I can already tell they’ve retained the high bar for quality they’ve always had. The very first story, out of the gate, left me devastated, in a good way: just profoundly moving.

So when they announced they were doing a 15-minute online writing workshop with author Tim Waggoner, I leaped to sign up.

Sure, I had some skepticism. Most of the past workshops I’ve been to have been at least an hour, and even that felt short. How much could we cover in just fifteen minutes?

It turns out you can cover basically everything you need to cover, to dissect why a piece of short fiction isn’t working.

I sent in the first six pages of a horror story I have that I like, that I’ve edited multiple times, but that also keeps getting rejected. I assumed it was a problem with the story, but I was having trouble seeing it.

Tim had no such problems. In just fifteen minutes over voice chat, he went right to the heart of the problem with my story: the motivation for my protagonist is too impersonal. Then he broke down some issues with my style — too many short paragraphs, too much exposition up front — that I realized are habits I need to break, because other readers have mentioned them before for other pieces (different readers saw different issues. Tim saw them all).

I wasn’t all criticism, though. He also gave me techniques to use to prevent making these same mistakes again. Such as keeping a separate document open for exposition, writing it there and only there during the first draft, and then coming back and pulling from that doc while editing, inserting only what the reader has to know, and then only when they need to know it. Or combining the first few pages into a single paragraph, then breaking it up during a read-through, to end up with more natural-feeling paragraphs.

He was spot on, in everything he said. I already started re-drafting the story based on his feedback. Not only that, but I’m also editing a second story with his feedback in mind; when re-reading it after the workshop, several of those same problems leaped out at me.

Many thanks to Apex Magazine for organizing the workshop, and to Tim Waggoner for running it! I learned a lot in a short amount of time, and I’m very grateful.

Keeping Score: January 22, 2021

It feels good to have a competent President again. A President with some dignity, who doesn’t spend his time tweeting out misinformation. Whose Press Secretary thanked reporters after her first press briefing, who doesn’t see journalists as the enemy. A President who made news this week because of the raft of actions he took to kick off a national response to the coronavirus pandemic, not the lies he told.

The day after the inauguration, I sat down to write after a long day at work, and when I looked up I’d written twice my daily word count, smooth as butter.

I could get used to this. I want to get used to this. Not in the sense of taking it for granted, but in the sense of it happening, over and over and over again.

There’s much to be done, politically. Too many Americans are locked up in prisons. Too many Americans fear the loss of their job so much they’re willing to endure urinating into bottles and absurdly low wages, while their bosses complain about not knowing how to spend all the money they’re making.

But it’ll be easier, collectively, to tackle such things, if we don’t all have to worry about the President, too, coming after us. If we have the headspace to write, and call, and paint, and march, and sing, and petition, without wondering, every day, which shoe the executive is going to drop on us that day. What painstaking progress the administration rolled back with callous ease this morning.

It’ll be good to feel like we have an ally in the White House. Not perfect, by any means. But not actively trying to set us back.

Novel’s at 24,580 words. More by the end of the day, since I haven’t yet done my daily words. Back to the rhythm of 2,000 words per week.

I’m at the point where I’m stitching together the pieces I’ve written for the current sequence, before pressing on. I’m having to shift some paragraphs around, moving them either earlier in the chapter or later, so I can keep them without interrupting the flow of things.

I can already see parts I’m going to have to revise. Conversations that don’t go anywhere (currently), descriptions of daily life that will need to be rewritten according to the research I’m doing.

I’m…uncertain, whether to fix those, or just press on. The advice I’ve gotten from the Writer’s Coffeehouse says to move on, to just make a note of it, so it’ll be easy to come back to, but to keep forward momentum going. Finish the draft, then go back and patch things up.

And it’s good advice! Only…if I already know how things need to change, shouldn’t I change them? Or worse, if I know things need to change, but I’m not sure exactly how, isn’t it better to find out the more stable form for them now, so I can keep writing the book with that in mind?

I suppose the advice is meant to keep me from getting bogged down in revisions, instead of finishing out the draft. And I definitely do not want to do that. And it’ll probably be easier to make the changes I need once the book’s done, and I can see the whole story, rather than now, when I’m still mapping it out.

So I suppose I will press on. Still going to make notes about revisions to the scenes, though, so I don’t forget them when it’s time to edit.

But to have something to edit, I’ve got to finish this draft.
Onward!

Biden to be Sworn in as 46th President of United States

These past four years have been a waking nightmare. Every day, it’s been a barrage of lies, mismanagement, and neglect from a President with no previous governmental experience, no redeeming qualities, and no sense of duty.

2020 brought everything bad about the modern GOP right out into the open. They’re willing to let 400,000 Americans die rather than wear a piece of cloth on their face. They’re more interested in holding onto power than continuing our democracy. And they’re willing to commit sedition to get their way.

Biden and Harris will have a lot of work to do, just repairing the damage the GOP has done. But beyond that, they’ve got to contend with all the things they ignored, from the pandemic to foreign interference in our elections to the right-wing terrorists who attacked the Capitol.

And to be fair, some of the issues we need them to put a spotlight on are things we as a country have ignored for too long: racial justice, climate change, universal health care. The pandemic exposed how weak our institutions have really become, because we’ve left folks behind. That needs to stop, if we are to indeed build back better.

It’s a heavy task, but I have hope. Hope because the need for these things is out in the open, plain as the hospitals that have been overwhelmed, plain as videos of police beating up protestors and journalists, plain as the police shooting of a Black man in broad daylight as he was getting calmly into his car with his kids.

The Biden/Harris Administration isn’t an excuse for us to go back to sleep. To imagine ourselves waking up in a better country.

It’s a chance for us to get to work.

I’ll be watching the swearing-in ceremony today, live. You can view it here, on the Biden/Harris inaugural page, or on Youtube

MLK Day 2021

I realized, this morning, that I’d never read Dr King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. So I found this copy online, and read it straight through.

It took only twenty minutes to read. But in that one letter, King evokes philosophers and thinkers from Martin Buber to St Augustine to Thomas Jefferson, laying out the justice of his cause and defending nonviolent direct action. It’s a powerful, compelling, argument.

Reading the letter, it struck me how little has changed, in how police still react with violence to Black people who are nonviolently seeking justice. In King’s day, they attacked marchers with dogs, billy clubs, and fire hoses. In ours, they do it with tear gas, rubber bullets, and tasers. But the demands are the same, and the violence committed in the name of upholding racist power is the same.

I urge you, if you haven’t before, to read the letter. And as we speed away from 2020 and into 2021, let’s remember Black people were murdered by police in 2019, and they will continue to be murdered by police in the new year, until racist power is broken, and justice is granted to all those Black families that have been told to “wait.”

Keeping Score: January 15, 2021

What a week, eh?

Trump’s been impeached for a second time (finally). The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol are being rounded up (thank goodness). And tech platforms are waking up to their complicity in the planning of the attack, and as a result, dropping right wing extremists so fast it reveals how much they were dragging their feet about it before.

Not that my family back home believes any of that, of course. I mean that quite literally: they don’t think Trump has been impeached, they think “antifa” (insert eyeroll here) caused the riot, they think the First Amendment requires their favorite BBS to let them post anything they want.

It’s…amazing, to me, to see the people that wrap themselves in the flag and “Blue Lives Matter” defend folks that invaded the Capitol with the intent of halting a Constitutional process (and perhaps grabbing a hostage or two) and beat the cops that tried to stop them.

What happened to the party of law and order? The party of civics, of wear-your-tie-to-school and don’t-you-know-how-the-government-works, hippie? Was it always a smokescreen?

So…yeah, I’ve been a little distracted. Writing-wise.

But I’m still hitting my 250-words-a-day target! Not always when I’m supposed to (in the morning), and not always in a single session (10 minutes at lunch, 20 minutes after work, 15 minutes before bed…), but I am getting them done, every day.

Not much more than the minimum, I’m afraid. Which is why the novel’s only at 22,894 words. But it’s progress, all the same.

Taking weekends off is still helping. Relives the pressure for a bit. Lets me do some of the research I need to do to properly write the section I’m on, which can soak up a lot of time (can you believe it’s hard to find an English-language book on 17th-century Central Asian history and culture?). Also gives me a chance to reflect on where things stand so far, and where I’d like to novel to go next.

What about you? How is your writing going, two weeks into the new year?

The Mandalorian: Season 2 Review

Ye gods, it has been hard for me to avoid spoilers for Mandalorian Season 2. Even though I deliberately avoided every article, every review, still things would slide by on my Twitter feed, and then boom spoiled.

So two of the “biggest” reveals — well, okay, three — were basically spoiled for me before I even started rewatching Season One.

I…well, I hate that, so I’m going to be very careful here. The first part of my review will be completely spoiler-free, promise.

The second part will have spoilers, but I’ll label it in huge header-style letters first, so if you haven’t seen Season Two yet, you can stop before you get there.

Ready?

Let’s go.

Non-Spoiler Review

Season Two is a huge improvement on Season One.

In Season One, the episodes were very much disconnected, both tonally and plot-wise. It felt like the kind of show that a network that 20 years ago would have been shown out of order on a network, because they thought no one would notice.

Season Two finally gets its plot arc together. Each episode flows naturally from the last, and builds on it, till the final episode feels inevitable, instead of weirdly tacked-on.

As a result, every single part of the writing is stronger. The dialog is better, because it has a purpose. The individual plots are better, because they’re not mucking about, they’re building to a conclusion. And we get to see more character moments from Mando, learning more about him, and how he changes over the course of the Season.

Basically, everything that was missing from Season One is finally in place.

And thankfully, they don’t throw out the elements from Season One that mostly worked. They revise them a little, perhaps, but amidst the new cameos and characters, it felt good to see them tying into locations and events from Season One. It made the whole thing seem more grounded, more real.

So what’s not to like?

Well, I’ll save the details for the spoiler section, but basically they still don’t know what to do with Moff Gideon other than have him be SO EVIL, LIKE REALLY EVIL, HE WEARS BLACK AND EVERYTHING CAN’T YOU SEE HE’S EVIL?!!

And they can’t seem to think of a good name for something Imperial other than to call it “Dark,” which makes me think they drank the Dark Kool-Aid in their Dark Treehouse while wearing their Dark Hat (and listening to Dark Music) just a little too much. It’s not scary at this point, it just sounds uncreative (and a little racist, to be honest).

Finally, after all the buildup I heard online about the last episode, it was a complete and total letdown. Plot-wise, character-wise, and ending-wise. Just meh.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

This next part of the review has spoilers! If you don’t want ’em, skip out now. I’m going to give you till the count of 3.

1…

2….

3.

“Dark” Troopers? Seriously? That was the best name they could come up with? The scariest name?

And what’s scary about them? They have better armor than stormtroopers, they’re kind of strong? I mean, really, how are they a frightening force?

They’re obviously there so that the only thing that can rescue our heroes from them is a Jedi. Which is…so frustrating, and feels like a lost of wasted potential.

Ditto Moff Gideon. “I’m done with the Child, you can have him”? And then Mando just believes him? Mando, who a few episode earlier we saw shoot an enemy that claimed to be disarming? Mando, who we’ve seen call in a New Republic hit on an entire base? That Mando?

I don’t buy it, not one bit.

I feel sorry for Moff Gideon. They have him strutting around in that ridiculous armor, which he has no business wearing in the first place, spouting villain dialog which goes nowhere and does nothing.

Dear god, I just remembered: “Dark Saber.” Jesus Wept. What a horrible name for a MacGuffin.

And then Luke shows up, and he doesn’t sit down to chat, doesn’t explain anything, just this dude in black comes up and says “Give me the child,” and Mando just hands him over, no problem.

Hahaha, nope.

They’ve taken the ship. Why not have Luke stay for a bit? Discuss his plans? Get to know the Child?

Oh, it’s because de-aging CGI is expensive? Well, gosh, maybe they should have had some other Jedi come in and take the Child.

Like, oh….How about Qi’Ra? No computer-based aging required. We know she was working with Darth Maul, so her being a trained Sith is possible. And she can pretend to be a good person, at first, who’s willing to take the Child.

But having someone actually evil, actually, interestingly evil, take the Child gives us a plot engine for Season 3, and a cliffhanger for all of us who’ve seen Solo.

Instead, Luke’s flown in, taken the Child, end of story. What’s left to do?

Oh, the whole rule over Mandalore thing? That’s so obviously a fake problem, I don’t…I don’t really care.

I might care, if Mando had to try to protect the Child while getting involved in a plan to retake Mandalore and put what’s-her-name on the throne. That’d be interesting.

But that ship’s sailed, hasn’t it?

So for me, the final episode was just a big letdown. Going out with not a bang, not even a whimper, but more of a sigh.

I think the first five episodes of the Season are fantastic. But things start to wobble in Episode Six (it was good to see Boba Fett kicking ass, sure, but did Mando really need to throw himself at that force field three effing times?), and then completely come apart in the finale.

I don’t know if I’ll watch a Season Three. Having established their show once, and fixed it the second time, then thrown it all away, what’s there to draw me back?

I Miss Those Old-Fashioned Family Arguments

My family and I have disagreed on politics for a long time. I turned left even before going to college, rejecting the conservatism I was raised in.

Their conservative beliefs — shared by most people where I grew up, in West Texas — seemed hollow and hypocritical to me. They talked a big game about freedom, but sent me to the principal’s office for daring to wear a hat to school (only girls were allowed to wear hats in those hallowed halls, I was told). They talked up their faith, and turning the other cheek, but it was me that was supposed to turn that cheek, not them, as they let their sons bully me between classes. And they wrapped themselves in patriotism, but only for “real Americans,” like them, not liberals or Californians or anyone living back East…or me.

There was no place for me, in their America. Except at the bottom of the ladder, to be kicked and laughed at. Open season on nerds.

So I left Texas, and I left their beliefs behind. I didn’t give up on my family, though. I argued with them, often and vigorously. They were amused at my liberalism, I’m sure — there’s a smirk a right-wing person gets when they feel a leftie is talking out of their ass — but I was sincere.

And they argued back! We had good discussions, for many years. They pushed me to refine my thinking, and I used to think I was helping them, too, to see the other side of the argument. We didn’t have much in common, anymore, but we had good, old-fashioned, no-holds-barred, debates. All in good faith, and with love.

But we don’t — we can’t — argue like that anymore.

Things started changing during Obama’s presidency. I didn’t notice it at the time, but looking back a pivotal moment was when my older sister, in all seriousness, sat down across from me after dinner one night for a chat.

“I need to ask you about something,” she said. “You’re pretty up on things, you know what’s going on.”

I shrugged. “Sure, what’s up?”

“I know the IRS is building camps out here, in the desert, to round up people with guns, and you know, conservatives. So what I do, when they come for me?”

…and I was speechless.

I mean, I said all the things I thought were right: The camps weren’t real, no one was coming for her or her guns (which she doesn’t own) or conservatives in general. That President Obama had no such plans, and would never do such a thing.

She listened, and she nodded. And I thought she believed me, and felt better.

But now…Now I’m not so sure. When my family’s constantly posting things about how the election was stolen and the Democrats are all Muslims that want to put Oklahoma under Shari’a Law and Black Lives Matter protestors burned down the entire city of Portland in a single day. I feel like that conversation was my first glimpse that something was wrong, that my family was slipping from conservative to right-wing, and losing their grip on reality.

Could I have done something, said something, back then, to keep that from happening? Could I have reached out more, found conservative but reality-based news sources to help them feel comfortable staying with us in the real world?

Because I can’t have arguments with them anymore. I have to spend all my time trying to convince them that these things they fear are simply not true.

And I can’t get through to them. No matter how many news articles I link. They’re “fake news” from the “mainstream media,” and so can’t be trusted.

Not only can’t be trusted, but challenging their reality this way is taken as a personal attack. They’re not “lies” they’re “conservative facts.” I can’t…I don’t know how to respond to that.

And all the time I spend fact-checking, they’re continuing to like and re-post articles spreading hate and fear about liberals, about BLM, about…well, about me. Not directly, but people like me. My friends. My neighbors. Our fellow citizens.

I’m…angry, sure, but also sad. Because I’ve lost something that was very important to me. I’ve lost my debate partners. But more, I’ve lost my family.

And I don’t know how to get them back.

Keeping Score: January 8, 2021

Oof, 2021 started out well, didn’t it?

I mean even with the spike in Covid-19 patients, and the continued lies spread by the President and his allies about the election, I had a feeling on New Year’s Day that we’d escaped the awfulness of 2020. That we’d turned a corner, the case numbers would be coming down soon, President Biden would be in office in just a few weeks, and we could start the work of rebuilding everything the Republican Party has destroyed over the last four years.

Even the Georgia elections (!) gave me hope. My fellow citizens in GA turned out in such numbers that they put the two Dems over the top, putting an end to the use of the Senate as just a roadblock to legislation. Exciting times!

And then came the coup.

I know, I know. Attempted coup. Or riot. Maybe insurrection, if you’re a journalist and you’re feeling spicy.

And suddenly all of the mental habits I’d tried to shed from 2020 were back. Reflexively checking the news every five minutes. Doomscrolling on Twitter. Cognitive dissonance from looking out my window, seeing a bright January day in SoCal, and then hearing reports of shots fired in the Capitol building.

Texting friends living in DC, to see if they’re okay during the madness.

I called my brand-new freshman-clean House Rep yesterday, not just to urge her to impeach Trump, but also to check in and see if they were safe.

What a country.

Difficult to think in such times. Difficult to write.

But so far, I’ve managed to do it. Each day, closed out Twitter, stared at the screen, reading over the previous days’ work until I sink back into the story.

And it is sinking. It is an escape, for me. A needed one, in this case.

So I’ve pushed the novel up to 21,348 words. I’m almost done with the scenes I’ve been working on, patch-work-style. I move up and down the page, writing sections as they come to me, completely out of order. I leave visual gaps in-between them, extra newlines, to show that these are fragments. Then go back in and fill the gaps later, stitching together all the pieces until they read like a continuous whole.

It’s not how I’ve written other novels. Not even how I usually write stories, either. But it’s the only thing that’s working for me, right now. So I’m using it.

Hope wherever you are, that you’re safe, that you can still put yourself in the headspace to write, even if it’s just a few words.

Hang in there.