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.

Keeping Score: March 26, 2021

Novel’s at 38,160 words. The snippets I’m working on are starting to spill over into the next chapter; I’m already scoping out the reactions of the characters to the events of the section I’m working on.

Meanwhile, this section is winding down. And I’m getting the feeling that much of it — most of it, even — might be cut in the next draft. I mean, do I really need to describe how a character makes their camp dinner in such detail? And yet, if I don’t do it, I won’t know that they keep flour in this jar over there, and that they constantly gather firewood as they travel, so they have a stock of it ready to go when needed. Details like that would be completely lost, if I didn’t make a hash out of describing every little action right now. So I keep doing it, knowing that what I’m writing now will likely be cut, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be used.

I’m also…well, I’m debating whether to let one of my characters give A Speech at the end of this chapter. They have the words for it — I’ve already written the points they want to hammer home — they have the audience, they have the space and the time. But does the book have the tone for it?

I usually shy away from having characters make big speeches, or monologues. Blame part of it on a Gen-X thing: I treat displays of sincere emotion with suspicion. Blame another part on my preacher of a father, whose pompous, hypocritical sermons turned me off to religion altogether.

So I’m always pushing my characters to speak more naturally, to take any Great Wisdom they want to lay down and either show it through their actions or weave it into their dialog some other way.

But this time…this time I might let them just say what they want to say. Certainly the situation calls for it: a young girl is about to be pushed into an apprenticeship that will change her life, take her away from the family and the place she’s always known and send her criss-crossing the world with her mentor. And all because of a decision she made to pursue vengeance for her father’s death, that led to a near-deadly encounter with a dragon, and now this. Such sweeping changes, they call for a little more weight to the dialog, yes?

Oof, I’m uncertain. I’ll write the speech, I think, and see how it plays. I can always change it later, right?

Keeping Score: March 19, 2021

Ye gods, the Daylight Savings Time switch walloped me this week. It’s like I was finally adapting to 2021 — working on the novel, editing short stories, plotting out a new story — and then DST yanks an hour out from under me, robbing me of just enough energy that I’ve been struggling just to hit my daily word count.

I’ve basically been slow-motion jet-lagged all week. I really wish we would stop doing this to ourselves.

The good news is that (thanks to beta readers) I now have not one, but two stories under submission. Just waiting for their little pink slips of rejection to come back 😅

I kid, but really, it feels good to have them out there. Statistically, they will get rejected from each magazine I send them to, which is how I steel myself for it. But I like these stories. I believe in these stories. There’s a market for them, somewhere, and the only way I can find it is by sending them out.

Meanwhile, the novel’s climbed to 36,789 words. I’m starting to connect up the snippets of dialog I’ve written for the ending scenes of this section, which means I’m having to actually worry about things like “How would they have treated this wound in this time period?” and “How badly injured is the protagonist, anyway?”

I am definitely getting some of these details wrong. I do not know enough about wounds, or medical care on the Central Asian steppe in the 18th century, or early modern firearms, or…really, so much. But I know enough to write something down, something I can come back and fix later, so that’s what I’m doing.

It helps for me to think of this not as the first draft, but as the trash draft. The draft I know I’m going to mess up on, and revise extensively later. No one’s going to see this draft but me. I’m going to finish it, and then do the research needed to get each section right. Hell, some of these scenes I’m flubbing might not even be needed, and so they’ll get cut. Which would make taking the time to get them exactly right now a waste.

So it’s onward! Screwing up as I go, laying down the raw material I’ll shape into something better via editing.

Keeping Score: March 12, 2021

I don’t think I’m good at coming up with story titles. Mine tend to end up either very much on the nose — my first published story, “Wishr,” is named for the company at which it takes place — or become horrible puns, like “There Will Be Bugs” (I know).

So in trying to come up with a new title for the story I’ve been editing, I wanted to branch out from my usual process. Started brainstorming, just listing out things as they came into my head.

At first, most of them were more of the same (I really am fond of puns). But then I thought back to short stories I’ve read and liked recently, and their titles, and realized: The ones I liked the best (titles, not stories) were ones that fit the story, but where I didn’t understand how they fit until after I finished reading the piece.

So I shifted my brainstorm, away from trying to convince a reader to read the story (by telling them what’s inside it) and towards giving readers a new insight into the story after it’s been read. And voilà! I found my new title.

I’ve got some beta reader feedback to process (on the story as a whole) this weekend, and then the story will be ready for submission, shiny title and all.

Meanwhile, I keep moving ahead with the novel, which is sitting at 35,380 words. I’m past the big climactic scene, and into the aftermath, where the consequences of the protagonist’s actions come due, and her life changes forever.

This part introduces a new character who becomes a major part of the protag’s life. So after filling in the rest of the climactic scene, I’m back to sketching what comes next, setting down fragments of conversation and description as they come to me.

I’m trying to consciously develop a different voice for this character, a distinct way of looking at the world, so it’s obvious she comes from a different part of it than the protagonist. Which means I’m focusing on dialog first, nailing down the back-and-forth between her and the protag before handling any action.

I’m also getting close to the end of this section of the book. 21,000 words and counting to cover just a few days in the protagonist’s life. Important days, to be sure: You only get one first encounter with a dragon! Even once I read the end of this section, though, I’ve still got some gaps left in the earlier parts of it that I’ll need to close, stitching everything together.

And once that’s done? On to the next big section, which will leap years ahead in time, and thousands of miles across the Earth’s surface. Let’s hope I don’t get lost along the way!