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?

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.

Writing Goals for 2021

Feels a little silly to be setting any goals for 2021, to be honest. If 2020 taught me anything, it’s that plans can become meaningless fairly quickly.

But I live in hope, and so I want to enter the year, like I always try to, with some goals in mind for my writing.

Goals from 2020: How did I do?

First, a look back at how I did on 2020’s writing goals:

Write four short stories

Hahaha, nope. Not even close.

The story I started just after setting that goal? The one I’d been chewing on for a while, and wanted to just get started on? That’s the novel I’m currently writing.

It didn’t take long for me to look at the outline I’d produced for the “short story” and realize it was really a novel. And since, at the time, I was already working on one novel, I shelved it. Came back to it only this November, for NaNoWriMo, and I’ve been chugging along ever since.

I did start a new short story, that will actually be short, but hit delays because I tried to follow the advice of Story Genius, which ran me right into a wall of writer’s block. Had to hit pause that one, too, so I could start working on the current novel.

I did get one story edited, and by edited I mean “wrote an entirely new back half of the story, doubling its word count.” Said story is now so long it’s too long for many of the markets I’d like to sell it to. So maybe I can get credit for that one?

Finish the current novel

This one I did do, sort of.

“Current novel” here meant Prison Fall, the book I was working on most of this year (before the new novel). The official goal was to have it done, completely, ready to go to agents, etc. And it is done, in the sense that I’ve done multiple drafts now, one of which involved basically rewriting most of it, and I’ve done multiple editing passes since then to clean up the prose and eliminate inconsistencies.

The feedback I’ve gotten from beta readers, though, has revealed some things I want to fix before sending it out. So it’s not all done, in that sense. But close enough.

Post more to the blog

This one’s also a mixed bag. I started out well, conducting interviews with local writers and posting them here on the blog. I think I got three months in before the pandemic crashed down on me, wiping out the mental headroom I had to work on those.

Ditto my book and movie reviews. I had a good run of keeping up with them, but eventually ran out of steam, over the summer this time. Began to interfere with my enjoyment of the books, where I felt I had to keep notes on every little thing as I went through. Not to mention my motivation for writing them up fell away. So I stopped.

So this one’s a partial success.

Goals for 2021

Oof, here we go. Is it okay if I just call a do-over on 2020, and copy those goals? No? Fine, whatever.

Finish first draft of The Last Dragon

Slow and steady. I want to keep working on the novel I started back in NaNoWriMo, and finish its first draft before the end of the year. It’ll be an ugly draft. It’ll have mistakes and inconsistencies and historical inaccuracies everywhere. But I can’t fix it if it doesn’t exist, so I want to finish it out.

Finish edits to Prison Fall

One last pass to do the touch-ups from my beta readers.

Finish The Harvest

This is the short story I was working on in October. I like the story, and I want to finish it. By finished, I mean, drafted, edited, beta read, the whole shebang.

For once, I’d like to do the full cycle of drafts on a short story before sending it anywhere. In the past, I’ve gone through a few drafts, then started sending it out, sometimes before beta readers get to it. As a result, the story I submit to later markets is always stronger (and very different) from previous ones.

I’d like to have submit the strongest version from the start, this time. If that means it doesn’t get submitted anywhere this year, I’ll have to live with that.

Post three times a week

Yes, fine, I’m copying this one over from last year. It’s still a good goal.

Stretch Goal: Submit Prison Fall to agents

If I don’t finish the edits till the end of the year, this’ll have to wait till 2022. But it’d be nice to have this actually out the door, accumulating rejection slips, before the year’s out.

Wrap-Up

So there they are: my 2021 goals.

I’m setting the bar lower this time around, because I think the pandemic is not going away in the US anytime soon. Even with the vaccine, we’re seeing folks — medical front-line workers, even! — refuse to take it, all while hospitals are full and mask-wearing is maybe at 50%. It’s going to be a long hard road to herd immunity.

What about you? What writing goals are you setting for the new year?

Keeping Score: January 1, 2021

We made it to a new year!

In the past, I’ve taken that for granted. One year rolled into the next, I got older, and the world kept turning.

Not this year. This year, reaching January feels like an escape, like ducking under a closing door just before it seals itself shut.

So a sincere Happy New Year to us all!

Novel’s at 19,864 words. I’m still butt in chair every morning, forcing myself to stay there until I hit my word count goal. Some mornings it’s easier, some it’s harder, but…I’m always making progress.

I’m actually starting to run out of runway on the research I’ve already done about the setting. Which means I’m having to make more things up out of thin air, and thus getting more things wrong. I’ve already had to revise a few scenes based on new reading I’ve done. That’ll happen more and more, I expect, until I can catch up.

I know that ultimately, I’ll need to do some heavy editing of this draft, once it’s complete. Not just to fix some inconsistencies, but also to ensure the things that are consistent are historically accurate. Or at least, as accurate as a non-specialist like me can get them in a fictional tale.

But since I know I’ll need to do it, it doesn’t scare me to get things wrong now. What’s important now, I think, is to get the emotional beats of the story right. If I can nail down the characters, and how they react to the things that happen to them, I can fix the details later. Even if those details mean I need changes to the events of the plot, that’s fine. So long as the emotional arc of things is right.

That’s my theory, at least.

I want to thank those of those you who’ve been reading me regularly through this hell year. You give me hope that someday, these novels I grind away at will see the light of publication.

And for my fellow writers, I offer a hope and a blessing: May your writing be a joy and comfort to you. May your inner editor take a vacation when you’re drafting. And may all your tales be true.

Onward to 2021!

Good Bye and Good Riddance, 2020

When my wife and I moved into our new house back in February, we thought that would be the most stressful thing we did this year.

When I backed out of working a booth at a conference in early March because some Covid-19 cases had been reported in California, we thought I was being overly cautious.

When I had my birthday party on Zoom in April, with cases raging both here and back east, we thought that would be the low point.

When May came, and protests exploded across the country, we thought it wasn’t safe to join them because of the potential for the virus to spread, never imagining that the police would be the biggest threat.

And then…and then the year is a blur for me, truly. Protests, and cops run riot, and record wildfires, punctuated by two camping trips taken in desperation, to get out of the house, to get somewhere, away from people, only to find that those spaces were crowded, too, and it seemed that no one, young or old, thought wearing a mask or keeping their distance or traveling with just their families was important.

I remember October, because for Halloween we turned out the lights and huddled indoors and hoped no one stopped by to ask for anything, for fear of them bringing the virus with them.

I remember November, because the election dragged on and on and on, and the Trump Regime launched an attack on the legitimacy of the results that failed in the courts but convinced my entire family back home that Biden is an illegitimate President.

Oddly enough, November is when I was first able to mentally breathe again.

It’s also when I started writing the novel I’m currently working on, jumping into NaNoWriMo with both feet and falling on my face, as is the 2020 way.

But I picked myself back up, and I’m still working on the book. I like it more and more, as I write it and figure out new things about it. It’s going to be different from anything else I’ve written: a fantasy with very little magic, a historical book with a diverse cast across two continents, a novel told in third-person with entire chapters written in first.

I have no idea what I’m doing. I have no idea if anyone will want to read this thing once it’s done. It’s scary, but also….a little liberating?

I think that’s something I want to take into 2021 with me. An attitude, of not quite “fuck it,” but close. More like “you have no idea what’s going to happen in the world, and no control over it, so you should write what you want and worry about selling it later.”

Which is not to say that I’ve held back from writing the stories I’d like to. More that, when writing them, I’ve aimed to write something sellable, something I think the market will buy. It’s a…pressure, I guess, that I put on myself. To put some elements in and not others, to shy away from tackling anything too big or too strange.

This novel is one step along the path of letting that go. It’s a weird structure. It’s about a time and place(s) that no one (in the US) writes about. Its main character is disabled.

It’ll probably go nowhere, even if I manage to pull it off, craft-wise. I’m writing it anyway.

So thank you, 2020, for teaching me this much: Writing is hard, so you should write what you love.

See you all in 2021.

Keeping Score: December 25, 2020

Happy Holidays!

I’m finally back in my office. All the house work we’ve had done for the last three months — while we lived, worked, ate, and slept sealed-off in the guest room — is over. Taking down the barrier between the guest room and the rest of the house was like opening a huge present; we were grinning like kids the whole time.

And the work all looks fantastic, and a little unreal. Like we’ve stumbled into someone else’s house. But no, it’s ours! And we can once again use it all.

So I’m back to watching the sun come up over the mountains just east of the city, hammering out words before the work of the day begins.

Speaking of which, the novel’s up to 18,000 words. So I’m putting out about 2,000 words a week, which is not bad, but does mean this draft won’t be done until looks away, does mental math sometime in June (?!).

Which is…fine, I suppose. That’s still a novel draft in less than a year. But if I only work on one project at a time, that means it’ll be six months before I get back to editing my last novel. I’ve gotten some excellent feedback from my beta readers, and I’d like to incorporate it all before sending it out to agents.

Maybe I can keep working on the new draft during the week, and edit the other novel on the weekends? That’s technically not taking the weekend off, but it is taking a break from the current draft. And editing’s the kind of work that’s hard for me to track, in the sense of how many words I’ve covered. These editing passes I’ll need to jump around in the narrative, adding a bit of dialog here, changing a description there. It’s not linear work.

What about you? Do you work only one project at a time, even if that delays things? Or do you find a way to juggle multiple pieces at once?

Anyway, as we wind down 2020, I hope you and yours are coming through the pandemic safe. I hope the vaccine gets rolled out to where-ever you are soon, and that enough folks get it for the danger to pass.

Good riddance to 2020. I’ll see you all in 2021!

Keeping Score: December 18, 2020

Novel’s at around 16,400 words. I haven’t done today’s writing session, though, so I should finish out the week closer to 17K.

The deal is working, so far. Holding myself hostage, unable to go for my morning job or take a shower or have breakfast or anything until my writing’s done for the day, has been rather effective.

And I’m looking forward to the weekend again, when I can daydream and doodle and research and not have to worry about hitting a word count. That recharge time is proving important, for my mental health and for my writing.

Funny, I think I started this year by throwing away word count goals and the idea of penalizing myself for not meeting them. Here I am at the end of the year, once again setting daily word count goals and forcing myself to meet them. It seems not only do different techniques work for different people, different things can work for the same person at different times.

What about you? What previous writing habit have you brought back this year, if any? Or maybe there’s an old trick you’ve dropped?

Keeping Score: December 11, 2020

Novel crossed 15,000 words today!

My pace has slowed since NaNoWriMo, but I’m still managing about 2,000 words a week, which is pretty good for me. Puts me on track to finish this draft sometime early next year.

I’ve changed up my writing routine a bit, both to give myself more time to write, and to have a chance to recharge.

So I’ve made a deal with myself: I have to write in the morning, first thing, as soon as I get up. No news, no twitter, no email. Just writing, until the day’s words (at least 250) are done. I can take however long I want to set those 250 words down, but I can’t do anything else until I do.

Most days, I end up going beyond those 250. Once the pump is primed, the words keep flowing.

In exchange for this early-morning discipline, I only have to write on week days. Monday through Friday. Saturday and Sunday are days off, now, just like they would be (I hope) if I were a full-time writer. If I did write full-time, I’d still need vacations. Still need days off. But I’d have no one to tell me when to take them, and I’d probably feel guilty if I did.

So I’ve made this deal. Treat writing like job, get it done first thing in the morning, and in return, I can take the weekends off.

Sunday was the first day I’ve deliberately taken off (from writing) in…months. I still did some research for the current book, digging up images and articles on Swedish manors built or renovated in the 18th century. I sketched some notes for future scenes. But I didn’t write anything, didn’t have to produce any words.

It was…incredibly relaxing. It was glorious.

And I came into Monday’s writing session recharged. Ready and eager to go.

This is the first full week I’ve been working under this self-made bargain. I’m looking forward to the weekend, having met my word count goal every day this week, first thing upon waking.

What about you? Do you ever take days off from writing? Do you feel guilty when you do, and if so, how do you handle it?