[Quick plug: If you have a moment, head over to my Campaigns page (https://www.antitopia.com/campaigns.html). I'm in dire need of a non-dying laptop and your support will help me get there. Thank you, and feel free to spread the links around!]
I am a “pantser”. This is one who writes “by the seat of their pants”, or without a specific plan. There are many methods for writing, and proponents of each, but I have found that there are none which meet my needs. This works well for me because I prefer the story be in control rather than me. I don’t trust myself with a plan. Others like the “plotter/planner” idea, which I can understand. It is alluring to know with precision where and what will happen, to whom, and why.
My experience with planning is that I get bored. For me, the story has already unveiled itself and there is no sense in putting it down. I do, however, use a few planning methods. I never plan to the end, and the amount of planning depends on the size of the story. The three main stories of the Antitopia universe would become overwhelming to track with no guidance. I am using the “world-building leviathan” which comprises 52 questions/steps to glue your world together. It brings things to mind which you might not consider, and those are the interesting parts for me to plan. They have little to do with the main story, but they give me resources to draw from when I get stuck on something.
I can only drive a quarter of the way through the process before boredom sets in. Who wants to write about how the direct predecessor of the Artificial Collective developed the credit system used by the AIDA units? I don’t, and I don’t want to read it, either. But having that information available has helped me form a better relationship with my characters, especially those within the Collective.
The larger problem with writing methods is they become fidget spinners. If I play with them too long, I get nothing done. With a universe as massive as Antitopia (it spans several billion years and uncalculated galaxies) I have to use some planning. I don’t want Brian Tate showing up next to an AIDA unit on the third earth or something silly. Knowing when to leave the details alone is a craft without which I would continue spinning and balancing until I lost interest.
I want to know how my stories end. Though I know how I would like them to resolve, I never know until the story is in your hands. And so, I write until the story tells me it is done. No matter the method or plan, the words flow. Thank you for being readers.
I have suffered from tinnitus for my entire adult life (a few years of my late teens as well). This interminable ringing makes concentration improbable and conversation a violence. It is a struggle to hear and comprehend, so there are a lot of “huh?” and “what?” tossed about. There is a cloud of self doubt that covers me, and I often feel dumb. This leads to depression and anger when I try to articulate myself. Because I don’t want others to feel like I do, I try to speak clearly and concisely, and to think about what I will say before I do so.
When people stumble over the middle of a sentence, mine or anyone else’s, it becomes impossibly frustrating. As I mentioned, concentration is improbable, so the sentence interrupted becomes a mangled thing. I struggle to find the point originally being made and follow the new focus of attention. All while being bombarded by a screech that originates in my head. It is less than ideal.
Mornings are the worst. I rise from dreams to the endless “EEEEEE” in my ear ten times louder than it will be the rest of the day. Every sound amplifies the ringing in ways that distort my perceptions, my vision twitches, scents once pleasant revile, my skin crawls at the contact of sheets and clothes. The last thing I want or need in that few minutes is human contact, and yet I crave it. To hear my toddler chirping in my ear without pain, to feel my wife‘s loving hand on mine without the confusion of senses, to smell my dog’s stinky popcorn feet without nausea, these things would be divine.
I will never know silence, though I remember it fondly. The best I can hope for is a few minutes of calm in which I can forget the screaming monster in my ear. I’m aware that won‘t happen often (if at all) and that I should somehow remain stoic, as I cannot change it. My failures at stone-faced glaring at the pain and noise make me feel more dumb and more muted than I should.
I’ll live, of course. There is nothing life-threatening about my condition. But that doesn‘t mean I have to be happy about it. I will miss the nuances of my daughters’ musical performances. When we were young (and I could hear), my wife had this soft lilt that coated the high range of her voice. I have no idea if it is still there. And I’m mad about it.
There are more pressing things going on in the world, and they are worthy of our attention. Sometimes, however, I just need to blow off the steam and focus on my griefs and gripes. Now that that‘s done, I’ll get back to bringing about the end of the universe. Thank you for reading!
Birthday Week has come and gone. I have a ritual each year which involves ignoring all creative endeavors for seven days and noting what I miss during that time. Last year the missing component was writing, the same as this year, but more on that later. Last year I slumped in crippling self-doubt: how could I write with all this chaos? I’ve written before but put nothing “out there”, what would be different this time?
I excused not working on the madness that is three kids on summer break, or the invaluable “I don’t know what to write” ploy. But in the madness, I found clarity. I read, a lot. Most of what I found fed my fears, perspective skewing being a talent nurtured by only the best procrastinators. Steven King’s two-thousand words per day was my biggest hump. I couldn’t imagine writing that much.
In late July of last year, however, someone reminded me of something I said to them about making music. “You don’t have to be the next Beethoven,” I’d said, “You have to be the first ‘you’.”
So it was that I set out to write. In August I wrote the first flash fiction story in what would become the Antitopia Universe: The Last Day. I submitted it to a contest and got my first rejection letter in September. That was the moment I knew I had to keep going. That rejection meant someone had read my work. They didn’t like it, but they read it!
I passed The Last Day to a friend with a taste for the dystopian to get a second set of eyes on it. One expects solid fluffing when they hand a story to friends and family. This friend is not fluffy. He pointed out good and bad with an even hand and suggested some changes that made it a better story. But he told me what I needed to hear: I want more.
Antitopia was born in that moment. Plots and plans erupted in my mind to lead the readers to Lena collapsing on a long-abandoned road to wait for the worms. It has become so much more since then and I can’t wait to share more with you.
That brings me to this year. This Birthday Week was like any other. I maintained the ritual and forewent all creative endeavors. Or did I? Most of my time I spent thinking about the Universe. I jotted notes, nothing formal, but it was there. I couldn’t put it down.
If my hands worked as fast as my brain, I would have several hundred books finished. They don’t, so I have to accept the limitations of the form. I remind myself, “This is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Pace yourself.”
I will continue my pace. Some days I will pluck five-hundred words carefully from the void. Others I will vomit thousands on the page. At the end, I will set them aside and let them age so I can view the results with fresh eyes full of cringes and guffaws. With any luck, the final product will be as fun a ride for you as it is me. Thanks for being readers, you make it worth the work.
My birthday is this week, so I'm only popping in to say hello. I appreciate all who take the time to read this blog and comment. I'm screwing off this week because birthdays are awesome and deserve celebration. There is a much longer post in preparation for next week, so please stay tuned, and thank you! Level 46!!
We’ve started a garden, of a sort. Nothing too fancy yet, some herbs, a tomato plant, simple stuff. It got me thinking about “lawns”. The lawn irritates me as an idea. A vast expanse of manicured monotony broken by a building inspires nothing but contempt. I am a lover of dandelions and wild onions, of rampant blackberries and sneaky wild fennel creeping at the edges, of red clover and wood sorrel. I admire the bees and butterflies they bring, and the battles between the carpenter bees and the wasps above their unquiet forest of tumultuous flora.
There is little so disturbing as an even surface devoid of color. The unending sea of uniform green blades leveled and trimmed offers nothing for all the effort contributed. What a waste.
I will sit with a cold glass of dandelion tea and enjoy the war between the pollinating aviators. Our lemon balm and various seedlings will drink deep and stretch their newfound leaves and practice beckoning insects. I’ll talk to Mr. Stripey (the kids named the tomato plant after its common name), tell it how well it grows, and admire its flowers. When the conversations with the garden end for the evening, I’ll pluck leaves and flowers for a salad. Fescue and Bermuda make for a poor salad.
Enough about lawns. I have stories to write and bees to thank.
In recent weeks I have seen some genuine bravery from kids. Two examples stick out in particular. The first was a kid on a climbing wall, the other was at a skating rink. These may not seem like places one would find examples of what most consider “brave”, but what I witnessed struck me as precisely that.
On the climbing wall, this girl made her way to the top. No problem, as up is relatively easy. Her descent was problematic. She panicked, I imagine because of looking down and allowing years of “be careful” and “you’ll break your neck”. Stuck at the top, unwilling to move, she cried. Some in the crowd jeered and jabbed how easy it is to lay back and fall. But it isn’t easy. It is simple to conceptualize, but in the moment, no prior experience with falling from a high place, and a crowd of onlookers… I felt for that kid.
The professional climber overseeing the wall made his way up to her and spoke softly smiling and encouraging her. You could see the change in her demeanor immediately. She was still frightened, but she was looser and smiling. With his guidance, she leaned back and let herself glide to the ground. The jackals, naturally, descended. Muttered under breath, full-grown adults spewed passive aggression at this poor scared kid. She tightened immediately, shoulders clamped face down, eyes searching the crowd for anything kind. Her mom raced up and put her arm around her as shield and comfort, then escorted this brave kid through the sneers and jeers. I hope that my wife and my kind words found her ears as she passed.
At the roller skating rink, one party goer had never skated before and had trouble. She couldn‘t make it far without falling, but each time she got up and wobbled her way until the next fall. This went on for hours. I could tell she was having fun, but it was clear it frustrated her. Everyone else was better, faster.
Her moment of courage was not continuing to try. That is its own thing and admirable, but her shining moment was when she gave up. It irritated her mother, whom attempted to goad her into trying harder. I understood this, as we all want our kids to do well at things. We‘re encouraged to push them a little. But this kid was adamant. She wasn’t rude or “over the top.” She stated that she was scared and tired and embarrassed and could she go home?
It takes a lot to give up. It takes nerve to stand up to a parent and tell them, “I really don’t think I can.” Because we know that someone will chime in how we can do the thing. Maybe we can, but maybe we shouldn’t right that moment?
I had a story in the queue for Apex Magazine (www.apex-magazine.com). I was pretty stoked about it, even though I was 184th in line. I wrote a nice cover letter addressing the editor and covering the bases one covers in such a thing. I wasn’t holding my breath, but I was hopeful. Even a rejection letter would be fine, as I collect them. Yesterday, the editor announced that they were shuttering the magazine for a while. They would release anything in the queue back to the writers and pay off their contracted writers. One issue left to publish, and I wasn‘t anywhere near that one.
My heart sunk. I was a little mad at first. But as I read his reasons, I thought of these two brave kids. They had the nerve to understand they could not continue as they were. Health and sanity are damn good reasons to step away from something as consuming as publishing. And with 200+ stories waiting for you to short-list or reject, it is no wonder he needed a break. Even though I’m still a bit miffed, I’m happy that there are those willing to step away so they can focus on their work (the Book side of Apex will continue), and be happy doing it.
If you have read none of the great stuff at Apex Magazine, get over there and get your fill. Some excellent writers have graced its pages. For my own, I will continue writing and improving my craft by living and observing the surrounding Life.
Four years ago I watched my amazing partner in crime bring my only known blood relative into the open air. As nefarious as that sounds, I am referring to the birth of my daughter, whom is to my knowledge not nefarious. She’s sneaky, smart, and sometimes loud, but more than anything she is the greatest thing to happen in my life.
While she was floating amniotic, we learned that she had a heart condition. A rare occurrence where the lower chambers of the heart reverse function called Congenitally Corrected Transposition of the Greater Arteries (CC-TGA for short) developed as she grew in the womb. Our initial reaction was one of fear and frustration, but with the guidance of some excellent cardiologists and a few supportive groups on Facebook, we could see this condition as a surmountable challenge.
The day she was born, they whisked her to NICU for observation and to assess whether she required surgery. While the love of my life lay recovering (yay, drugs!) I made many trips to our new cohort’s room. I gazed upon this bundle of tubes and blankets from which the tiniest face peeked. I sat in the room as the head cardiologist reviewed her various scans. Tears threatened as he concluded she wouldn’t need surgery.
It was a lot for a new dad (I won’t speak for Mom, though I know it was as much or more for her). Not five years prior I was convinced I couldn’t have kids, had no plans to, and found them a bit creepy if I’m honest. So there I was, looking down at a life I helped bring into the world, wondering how in the hell I was supposed to operate this strange new device. That’s when I realized.
I am not supposed to.
I get to.
For as long as she lets me be her guide and mentor, I have the opportunity. My job is not to convince her to keep letting me be "the dad,” it is to step in ways I hope she will step and let her decide if that is the direction she needs to go. I never realized as a kid that a parent’s position is not to force ideas, but to offer the ones we think best and explain them with the hopes our wards make decisions that take them to good things.
Four years on, I’m still learning (and unlearning) what dadding is. I’m not perfect (I hope, because that would suck) but I learn more every day. Thank you, to my daughter, for always wanting to play and show me cool stuff. And thank you, to the woman who agreed to embark on this adventure with me. I still think kids are kind of creepy (well, YOUR kids. Mine are fantastic), but I’m learning, growing, and damned proud to gush about my weird little superhero.
This past weekend I got to do something fun with my family. As I’ve mentioned, I have bad anxiety in situations with large groups of people. It is at its worst when I know I will be inside for the bulk of that time. Fortunately, the US Space and Rocket Center (Huntsville, AL) has a lot of outdoor activities and spaces.
We started our day in the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, which houses one of the three Saturn V rockets in the world. As a writer of science fiction there are few things more fascinating than experiencing the actual science behind your fiction. Standing beneath the S-IC first stage’s five massive Rocketdyne F1 engines makes one consider just how enormous an event the space race was. While there were a lot of smaller exhibits with cool stuff, I realized how few gawked at the rare and historic behemoth above them. Most would glance for a moment then move on. “Yeah, sure the space suits are great, but look up, dammit! This got us there!”
The kids got to make rocket fuel, an experiment I missed as I was running around the entire complex trying to find the main entrance. Of all the places to get lost, I picked a great one. I made it back to the lab in time to see the end of their work. My youngest was happy I got a stroller for her to ride in, and the older two were too busy wanting to be on the “simulators” (I know an amusement park ride when I see one, Space Center) to grasp fully what they had just accomplished. And the group moved on...
We slowly realized that we were on a mind-numbing tour that leeched the fun out of everything. We broke off from the tour and let the center breath life into us. This is when I learned something new. The G-Force Accelerator simulator (Ride, damn it. It’s a tilt-a-whirl with fewer steps), spins with a force of around 3 Gs. Before you enter they issue mandatory warnings about heart problems, epilepsy, and asthma (to name a few). Being a dumb guy, I ignored the warnings about asthma. This was not my brightest decision.
Around half-speed I realized I was having difficulty operating my lungs. I felt an elephant standing on my chest. It wasn’t the worst my asthma has done, but I was still a touch concerned. At full speed, it worried me. I could barely inhale. My career as an astronaut would be brief.
The MoonShot launches you straight up at 4 Gs acceleration and you float at the top for 2.5 seconds. The upwards journey has no less than four screaming people. It is an exhilarating and deafening experience.
Being immersed in rockets and space suits is excellent fodder for stories. I’ve got ideas for a few, and experience for one I was already working on. It’s my favorite kind of research. I’ve experienced much of it before (at the Smithsonian Institute and Kennedy Space Center) but never intentionally. I’ve ridden simulators (ri-i-i-i-i-i-des) but never with the purpose of learning. It was amazing and given the chance I will do it again.
I’ve been a touch nostalgic this week. Some years ago I was a homeless hobo bouncing around the contiguous states doing odd jobs and busking to make my way. I didn’t lament my fate or sob into my coffee while going through it, and even now I appreciate the many lessons learned from that chapter of my life. It was challenging, at the least, and I am glad to be past it, but occasionally I miss the liberty of travel. (I thank my dear wife for helping me when I could barely help myself)
By “travel” I do not mean heading to a place with an intent (beyond existing in that place). The travel I miss is the act of putting one foot in front of the other until one is no longer in the place one was.
I walked a lot. Along interstate highways and train tracks I made my way. Highways get a good bit of deserved grief, but on foot they can be beautiful. Barreling past at 80 MPH, you miss the tiny details. The world is a blur of green, brown, and gray with the occasional billboard or road sign to break the monotony. At the blazing speed of 3 MPH you see everything. I’ve stopped along a fence to talk to a rust-brown horse in the middle of Oklahoma that was as curious about me as I was about it.
All these experiences inform my creative works. From my music to my writing, everything has traces of my time “between”. That is the space where things happen, not where you were or where you’ll be, but where you are.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/ Roughing It
This weekend, my “itchy feet” (that’s hobo speak for “a desire to travel”) get a decent scratch. The family is heading out of state for a day for an event. We’ll gaze out the window and watch new parts of the world enter ours. As quickly as they come, they will go, but will have changed us. I can only hope that the kids won’t be staring at their tablets the whole trip. I hope they take a break, see new things, and let their world grow a little larger.
If the opportunity presents itself I will wander, if only for a moment, and expand my world. Even though the place we’re going is a place I have been before, there is always something new begging to be found if you take the time to look. It may be a shiny rock you didn’t notice before, or an angle you haven’t seen a familiar building from, but there’s something waiting for you to see it, feel it, know it.
Places are a lot like people. They may be the same person, but they aren’t the same moment. Neither are you. You have had experiences and thoughts that have shaped you even over the course of a few hours. You have lost and gained cells, hair, memories: you will never step in the same stream twice. So it is with places. No matter how familiar they are always changing, eroding, and shifting ever so much. Going anywhere is a new experience if you let it be.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach
Eventually we will come home and the tiny parts will slip away. We’ll forget the shiny rock or the horse we flew past at 80 MPH and settle into our exhaustion. I will fire up my laptop and plunk down some bigger stuff, shove my notes into Scrivener, and crack open a beer.
And while the shiny bauble that caught my eye will slide into the back of my mind, it will find its way to the page. I will slip it into a story without a thought to where I saw it, or when. It will have etched its mark on me, and by extension on my readers. If I do my job well, you will see it in your mind, like the horse at the edge of the highway.
I suggest this: travel, even if it is only a stroll around your neighborhood. Take it all in and bask in the difference each time. Find your shiny rock and let it inform your efforts, from writing to painting to daydreaming out your window at work.
Fight scenes in fiction are often heavy dramas loaded with hefty dialogue and lots of circling. They are tense and gripping. They also seldom capture the feeling of a real fight.
Fights are quick and intimate. There is some preening that occurs, usually one or both parties (assuming two people) pumping themselves up: an attempt to build themselves up to the fight. This is because most people don’t want to get hurt, and in the back of their minds a fight holds the possibility they might. They have to convince themselves.
What fights are not are sex scenes. A fight is intimate but in that moment you are not counting sweat beads or noticing pressure points. You are swinging and kicking and hoping you get more damage in than they do. You’re not a ninja (probably), you’re a scared and angry human lashing out against what will eventually turn out to be a minor inconvenience in a long list of minor inconveniences.
I got in a fight in high school many eons ago. There have been more since, but this was my first. There are two versions of this fight: fiction and non-fiction. The fiction is that we fought for ten minutes and were cheered on by a crowd of hormonal teenagers, each voice frothing the row higher. What really happened was I talked a bunch of shit to convince myself to do the thing, swung my foot wildly at his head, and got kicked in the balls. It took less than a minute. I curled up on the ground holding my crotch and moaning, and he patted me on the back and became a good friend. Neither of us even remembered what the fight was about.
One fact I should point out: never once in any fight I’ve ever been in has time slowed. Time sped up. Every fight is a confusing mass of fists and feet and not knowing what is happening. I’ve left the scene of a fight wondering how many times I punched myself.
I would like to see more of the chaos and rapidity written into fictional conflicts. The mess and insecurity makes the fights more believable. A good fight scene is in the buildup and the wind down. The actual slap fest is boring and should only take a paragraph, two at the most.
None of this applies to epic battles. Those we want to last. Massive armies should have massive battles. Few things will kill a good fantasy war more easily than brevity. But with two people, my eyes will cross and I will set a book down if it stretches past a couple paragraphs.
I say this as a reader, but also as a reminder as a writer. Just as an overwrought sex scene can ruin an otherwise good story, so can a time-slowed-down-and-my-instincts-kicked-in slap-a-thon kill a perfectly good book. Keep it brief.