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.
Time travel gets a lot of grief in fiction. Often I read stories where the “science” is overwrought or, worse, inconsistent. Stephen King once said a writer’s job is to tell the truth. I disagree. A writer’s job is to lie so convincingly, the truth becomes irrelevant. Any good liar will tell you that details ruin the lie but inconsistency murders it outright. Readers don’t want to think back to an earlier chapter where the science did one thing and now does another. If they question the truth, the story needs grief.
I have loved time travel stories since my first exposure to Doctor Who back in the 1980s. I stumbled across the show while staying up late and flipping channels on the tiny 12-inch cube that sat atop the antique (and non-working) Heathkit television my dad kept in the living room. PBS was showing “The Hand of Fear”, Sarah Jane’s last companion episode, and I tuned in about halfway through. I loved the bad puns and dry humor, but more than that I loved the absolute silliness of Tom Baker’s Doctor. I watched every episode the station aired from then on. It was (and still is) ridiculous, silly, and fun, but more than anything it was consistent.
[Side note: I’m absolutely in love with what Jodie Whittaker brings to the role. She makes an excellent Doctor and brings a much needed (and missed) light and silliness to the role.]
When I think of bad time travel stories, two awful ones come to mind: Time Changer, the story of an 1890s preacher who travels to the 21st century and is shocked, just shocked, that people get divorced and use “bad” language; and the cringe worthy Time Runner, the story of the universe’s worst time traveller (Sorry, Mr. Hamill, it’s horrid). The former is inconsistent (dude you traveled through TIME, and words and relationship issues are the problem? What about false prophets and televangelists that do nothing for those they preach to?) and the latter hoards bad plots like my dad hoarded non-working electronic devices (q.v. the Heathkit TV).
Some stories are terrible but fun (Time Rider, Time Cop 1) and others are fantastic (Time Bandits, Terminator). What makes these stories work better is consistency. I don’t care about the truth when I watch these because they do not call the truth into question. I never have to look back or say, “Wait, but you said/did X in that other scene!”
The bad news is, there will be more bad time travel stories written. It is inescapable. The good news is that every one of them teach us what not to do with our stories. That is why, as writers especially, we must read bad fiction. Make it through as much of a horrid story as you can. Learn what sucks and why. You don’t have to hit your thumb with a hammer to know it’s a bad idea. It may solidify the point, but so will watching someone else do it.
Antitopia will probably feature time travel though limited in scope. I think when we have a memory or imagine the future we are in that time, that moment, just not physically. And as magick and monsters play a role in Antitopia, one might affect a change in that mental state. Manipulating the past would be simpler, you change the collective memory. The future is tricky.
The things we do now can have a tremendous effect on the future. This is always hazy in fiction because there are infinite possible outcomes from a single moment. If I move my hand to the right while writing this, I might knock my daughter’s play-dough tools off the table. This might scare the cat, sending him tearing through the house. On his tear, he might claw his way through the living room right over the kiddo. The scars from that will leave her frightened of the cat, coloring her future interactions with all cats. I have given my child a phobia through a simple, accidental misstep. But what if I catch the tool, or don’t move my hand in the first place? Thus the future becomes a tricky adventure: even a simple step in a different direction can reshape the events you’re trying to effect.
[Note: I didn’t move my hand, the kid and the cat are okay.]
God(s) in Fiction
I am writing some strange things lately. Not that that is unusual in itself. The Antitopia Universe is a pretty odd place. After last week's post I got on a world-building kick and found a way to include some pretty odd critters in the evolution of conscious species. This whole mess got me thinking about god(s) in fiction. Not religion, necessarily, but the entities from which myths derive.
It could be argued, of course, that myths derive from human misinterpretation and ignorance, but we're in Fictionland, and that means anything is probable. Here's what probably happened in Antitopia. There are seven species of conscious beings (I've only defined three so far, but there's time) in the universe. Two are symbiotic in nature, those being my version of vampire and our good old human being. The other is Kardeshev V level crazy pants god things.
For those unfamiliar with the Kardeshev scale, it is a measure of civilization based on the ability to harness energy. Humans are around 0.73 on that scale with the potential to reach level I within 100 years or so. A level I civilization is capable of harnessing the full energy potential of it's home planet, and usually has to travel space due to demand outweighing energy supply. Level V civilizations have expanded to multiversal existence. Such beings would flit in and out of existence as we understand it without batting an eye.
These entities will likely play little part in the main stories of Antitopia. They will show up from time to time just to keep things weird, but they have no genuine interest in humanity. Woe betide us all should they ever gain an interest in us, because that kind of attention would be catastrophic!
This week's winning topic is brought to you by my friend John. And spite. He suggested some other topics that were more thoughtful, but this one is the one that got me thinking the most. I'm not very enthused by zombies, and never really have been. I may get kicked out of horror for this, but I think the zombie is the laziest monster in fiction. That said, I prefer to promote the things I love, so I will write about what I admire in zombies first.
They make a compelling bad guy. The perfect bad guy, in my opinion, is one which makes determining its motivation impossible. If you can't figure out what the baddie wants, they become difficult to defeat. Jason Voorhees was interesting and scary when he was a mask and a machete hacking up young lovers in the woods. Give him a morality and he becomes dull. Romero's zombies hungered for brains and while they were scary to my kid-mind, they grew tiresome when everyone and their mother started shoving out brain-eaters as their monster. More modern versions aim towards an unknown or undiscovered motive which makes them more interesting. The Walking Dead makes zombism a pandemic, and a disease's only known motive is to eat and reproduce. The zombies become a backdrop to the bigger enemy (humans are terrible) but make for a convincing menace.
And for me, that's it. Beyond being a wave of teeth and blood drops, zombies don't do anything. What we learn from zombie apocalypses is that human beings are awful and probably deserve their fate. As cynical as I may be, I still hold out hope for humans. I think with time we can move away from the rampant consumerism Romero's zombies represent and the mindless perpetual appetite of Kirkman's, and find ourselves an enemy worth fighting. Maybe we can have a lich represent corporatism...
Don't get me wrong, I will still sit down an watch a zombie flick and I'll probably enjoy it if it's a good story. But like Resident Evil 2 (Milla Jovavich era) I have no problem walking away when it loses me.
I do have a favorite zombie movie, though, and it may have tempered my view on all that have come since watching it: The Serpent and the Rainbow. While Wade Davis' methods and findings in his book may be suspicious, the movie made for some damned good story. I like the mythological and cultural zombie far more than what they've been turned into. The voudon zombi has the potential for redemption, where the pop zombie is generally cured with a shotgun. I think conflation of the two has left us with a terrible misunderstanding of a rich culture and a pretty lame monster to boot.
I guess the take away is that when you hammer people over the head with the same monster with little variety, they become bland. There is always potential, and more innovative writers show up every day, so who knows? Maybe the next round of zombie apocalyptics won't put me to sleep.
John makes amazing wood sculptures with stumps and a chainsaw and knows an awful lot about movies.