Saturday, December 31, 2011

You say you want a Resolution...

Like I said in my previous post, resolutions are no fun unless you can make fun of 'em.

But they are more fun when you go out for a "Resolution Forging Coffee Klatch" with Mady Virgona and Mike Lorenson!  Thanks to them both for some good planning and loads of laughs!

Below is an abbreviated but public record of my resolutions for 2012, so that this time next year, we can all sit back and chuckle uproariously at them.

Health resolutions
The inevitable "lose weight" resolution goes here.  For modesty's sake, I won't say how much I plan to lose, but it is an accomplishable goal.  I know, because I accomplished it a couple of times last year.  I just kept putting the weight back on.  And then Christmas happened and I discovered the joys of cooking foods with yeast in it.  Mmm...bread...
- Go to the gym 2x a week (or more).
- During the spring/summer months, go play tennis at least one week with Mike and Mady.

Creativity resolutions
- Write 500 words daily.  While it doesn't seem like a challenge to someone who can write 60,000 words in a weekend, it is more of a challenge than you'd think.  It's the "daily" part that will be the problem.  I'm like the whippet of the writing world:  a 50-mph couch potato.  Once I actually get off my butt and do something, I do it fast and relatively well; but the problem is that I spend more time goofing off than creating something.  Which brings me to the next two resolutions.
- Zero Facebook games in 2012.  I'm well on my way, actually - I haven't played any in the last three weeks.  YAY ME.
- As with last year, no more than 1 hour of TV or movies daily.  Hours can be banked, though, which means I can watch a whole movie in one sitting, if I haven't watched any TV the day before.  Because nothing says LOSER like leaving the theatre after an hour.
- Read two books a month, and post a *brief* review after.  I'm going to try and split my reading into 50% fiction, and 50% non-fiction, because I have such a backlog of research to do...If I do more than that, I can read more fiction!  Especially the classics.  I love the classics.  But reading is a real challenge for me, because I do have a short attention sp - ooh!  Squirrel!
- Bake more.  Buy no store-bought bread.  My bread's better anyhow, and comes free with a sense of self-satisfaction.  Self-satisfaction burns calories.
- Paint one picture.  I used to do that all the time, back when I had no floor space and nothing but carpets.  Now that I have space and hard wood floors, I should be painting more!

Other resolutions
- Learn sign language!  If I can find a good (and cheap) course, I can claim it as research for Mummer.  Barring that, I have ASL dictionaries at home, and I can always access that fabulous repository of all common experience:  YouTube!
- Volunteer 1-2 hours a week as a literacy and/or ESL tutor.  A) I have to get out of the apartment from time to time, and B) since I can't donate as much, financially, as I used to, I'll donate more time instead.  I'll see if I can volunteer through the YWCA.
- Submit more short stories and novels for publication.  That means a focus on critical editing, synopses and proposals.  This is more of a business and self-discipline thing, and less of a creative thing.


Now, I've made resolutions pretty much every year, with varying degrees of success.  But I have discovered there are five keys to increasing your chance of success.

1.  Make them SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely).  "Be kinder," does not qualify as a SMART goal.  "Volunteer for 1-2 hours weekly at a YWCA literacy program starting the third week of January" is a SMART goal.  Lose weight does not count as a SMART goal.   "Lose 15 pounds by June 15th" is SMART, as is "go to the gym twice or more per week".
2.  Make them known.  Doesn't have to be public, but do discuss them with friends and/or family.  Don't just state your resolutions, but make it clear - to them and to yourself - why these resolutions are important and attainable.
3.  Have a resolution partner (or two) - preferably someone else who has also made resolutions and is determined to keep them for the whole year.  Be accountable to someone for your success, because if they ask you "Have you been writing 500 words a day like you wanted?" you're forced to account for why you haven't been upholding your resolutions.
4.  Review your resolutions and success with your resolution partners in a regular and structured way, throughout the entire year.  If you don't, by March you'll have forgotten all but one or two of your resolutions.  Besides, it helps you, it helps your partners, and it's a great excuse to get out for more coffee with friends.  More importantly, it helps you to stop, reflect and digest your year so far, and it allows you to re-track if you've been derailed.
5.  State your bad excuses out loud, then keep your resolutions anyhow.  I'll bet you buckets of money, if you were to make a list of excuses, "Too tired," "Too busy" and "Too broke" are going to hit the top of the list.  Structure your resolutions - and your year - accordingly.  If you know well in advance that you're going to counter your resolutions with one excuse or another, then you can either change the goal or ignore the excuses.

I already have two resolution partners, but if you're interested, drop me a line in the comments below, and I'll check up on you, too!  You don't have to list all your resolutions in the comments field, not unless you want to make your resolutions public.  But don't forget to make them SMART goals, first.

Thus concludes the 2011 series of blog posts, and I'll leave you with one simple New Year's Wish:

Your new year may not be an easy one, but here's hoping the laughs outnumber the tears.  You have control over that much, at least.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How resolute were you this year?

Resolutions are no fun, unless you can make fun of them.

Sure, a lot of people make resolutions, but how many keep tabs on them?  How many actually go back at the end of the year to see how well you've kept them?

Well, in this case, I actually kept a record of my resolutions for 2011 - and because of it, I can look back on my year to see how well I've kept them (or not).  And for the longest while, Mady Virgona and I were checking up on one another's resolutions every Monday night, until we fell out of the habit.  I think if we had kept it up, or at least, if I had continued to look at my resolutions through the year, I would have accomplished more.

So without further ado, here are the silly, and not-so-silly, resolutions I'd made in 2011.

Take 4 singing lessons.  Failed!  It's okay, though.  I think "singing solo in church, at a baptism and at a funeral, and leading songs at Easter and Christmas" outweighs "didn't take singing lessons".  Grade: C-.

Take 8 dance lessons.  Success!  Unfortunately, it was at one of these dance lessons that my wallet was stolen, so that puts a big black mark on the whole experience.  Fortunately, my dance instructor was cute and very funny.  I don't think I would go back to that studio, though.  Too upper crust for me.  I think if I was to go back to dance, I'd return to Cat's Corner on St-Laurent. There, dance was more than an artform.  It was FUN, man!  And excellent exercise.  Grade:  B+.  (I'd give myself a higher grade if I had taken the last two of the lessons I paid for.  But like I said, when your wallet is stolen from a place like that, as rich and hoity-toity as it is, you really don't want to risk it twice.)

Sew one dress (with sleeves).  FAILED.  And "ha ha ha!" for thinking it up in the first place. Grade: F.

Pay off student debt.  Success!  Grade A+, for paying it off one month earlier than expected according to my budget, and for paying it off a full eight months before the regular payments finished.

Pay off the credit card.  Success, believe it or not!  And then I moved and went to IKEA to stock up on furniture. Grade: A, but a month's detention for racking it up again.  Darn you, IKEA!  Darn you all to heck!

Go to dentist.  No comment.  Grade: F.

Land a publishing contract (or, pay for self-pub by end of year 2011).  Nope, but close.  I still have high hopes for a certain short story, but as for a book...Well, if you were to read back through several blog posts of 2011, you'll see I went through a big BLAH that knocked me right off my feet.  Now, entering into 2012, I'm cautiously optimistic.  And I won't be self-publishing for a while yet.  Grade:  N/A.  The important thing is, I'm back in the game.

Be a better CWC RVP.  Unfortunately, the same BLAH that affected my writing hopes was the same BLAH that took over the rest of my life.  Fortunately, I've been doing a lot more volunteering.  Unfortunately, I didn't do half as much as I wanted to, and only a quarter of what this role deserves.  Grade:  D.

Complain less.  You know, I think I will actually give myself a passing grade on this one.  Any time I have complained, I'd like to think I did it sparingly, and with a lot of sarcasm.  But I have been exercising optimism.  Like a muscle, optimism needs to be exercised; without exercise, it atrophies and becomes a withered, dead thing in the bottom of your soul; but when exercised, it becomes more resilient against injury, and it becomes easier to hope for bigger and bigger things.  Grade: B.  (I'd give myself a higher mark if I hadn't substituted optimism with sulky silence so often.) 

Read twenty books (5 sf/f, 5 crime, 5 non-fiction, 5 whatever else I want to read).  Sadly, I lost track of the books I'd been reading through the year, but I do know I read about 22-25 books, so yay me!  Grade: A- (points lost for not keeping track and not ensuring I had a well-rounded reading list).

Lose ten pounds.  Well, if you get really technical, I lost about 40 pounds - 2 pounds here, 1 pound there, 3 pounds another week...But, if you balance that against the pounds I gained during other weeks, I lost a total of nothing.  I'm at the same weight I was at the beginning of 2011!  So, I'm going to have to give myself a "meh" Grade of C-.  Bonus points for actually going to the gym regularly during the months of July, August, and part of September.  A kick in the pants for not going more than five times total in the months of October, November and December combined.

Get a mentor from CWC.  Please refer to the "Great BLAH of 2011".  Failed! Grade: F.

Keep house clean.  Actually, in the end of the year, I've been doing pretty darned well, if I do say so myself.  Now that I have a much larger apartment, I have enough closets, shelves, cupboards and storage units to put stuff where it belongs.  Also, because I've become a neat freak when it comes to the floors, I'm sweeping and mopping like a maniac.  Still some work to be done, but A for effort.  Overall Grade:  B-.  Next step:  empty the storage room downstairs.  Heh heh heh.  (See, this is how I scare away writer's block.  I threaten it with chores.)

1 hour of TV daily, maximum.  Actually, yes!  If you average out the days I've watched 2 hours or more of TV against the weeks (yes, weeks) when the TV wasn't on at all, I come out at 1 hour of TV daily.  Grade:  A+.

Out of bed by 7:15 every day.  HAHAHAHAHA!  Okay, that was just a dumb thing to suggest in the first place.  7:15 a.m. on Sunday mornings, yes, giving myself exactly 45 minutes to shower, dress, take the dog outside, get coffee en route and be there by 8:00 a.m.  All other days...8:45 has been the norm.  Grade:  D-.

Sunday afternoons, zero internet / TV / computer games.  Reading only, four hours.  Well, I have to split this into two halves.  In the first half of the year, yes, actually, I was doing exactly that.  And then, for whatever reason, I fell apart.  Grade:  D-.

So overall, how was the year?  I give it a C-, maybe a D+.

When I stop and think back over it, it's actually been a pretty eventful, but up/down kind of year, where the downs zeroed out the ups, and vice versa.

In terms of work, I moved to a different role, and within three months of joining the new team, I had a commendation from not one but two TELUS Vice Presidents (and a lot of leftover pizza).  And things have been pretty good since then, though, I will admit, there have been days when I've cried real tears of boredom.  The good days more than make up for it, though.

In terms of life, I had my wallet stolen, I lost my apartment, I gouged both sides of the car, and I lost my grandmother, all within 8 weeks.  From the beginning of September to the end of October, it was like being slapped, punched, kicked in the groin and then eviscerated, in that order.  Then November came, and I was as low as I could get, exhausted, criticized and full of malaise.

But then again, I moved into a much bigger apartment, and I got my first dog!  And even when I was criticized and my work torn to shreds, I still managed to come out ahead.

In church, we've lost a lot of people, some of them who had been with us since the first founding days of our congregation; but then, we've gained some, too - people who are committed, engaged, and volunteering.

In terms of writing, I haven't been so close to publication before - short stories, and now two very solid mystery series, with Lady Butcher being a surprise new arrival in 2011.  And most importantly, I overcame two of the longest, bleakest struggles I've ever had, and came out stronger for it.  The revisions to Mummer's the Word I think are awesome - character development, plot twists, clarity of narration - all that came about because of the "crisis of the heart" I'd had at the beginning of the year, which led to me falling in love with the essentials of storytelling.

And on top of that, I was tickled pink (and humbled) to have received both the Most Prolific award and the award for Best Adult Fiction in the Muskoka Novel Marathon 2011.  Currently, the manuscript (Lady Butcher and the Accidental Saint) is sitting with Marc Cote of Cormorant Press, awaiting a full critique.  It may or may not lead to a publishing contract - but the important thing is, only good can come out of the critique.

And in terms of the world, look what's happened so far!  Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring, and the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Kim Jong Il.  But then again, Greece is still in turmoil, the Euro is in a death spiral, and we've also lost Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Falk (Colombo), Andy Rooney, Harry Morgan (Col. Potter), Randy "Macho Man" Savage, Steve Jobs, and Jack Layton.  And there was also Amy Winehouse, but was anybody really surprised?

And think of the inventions!  Quantum levitationFlying carpetsJetpacksGlasses-Free 3D Television.  The sky is no longer the limit.  Human imagination is the limit - and I don't think human imagination has a limit.  I can only imagine what "science fiction" will become reality next year.  Wireless energy ready lamps, cell phones and televisions?  I've already seen solar powered backpack laptop chargers, so why not?  (And yes, I've actually met someone who owns one.)  On the other hand, Canada has withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol, and that's just dumb, in my opinion, though I know the rationalizations behind it.
Overall, in 2011?  A few regrets, a few successes.  There's so much more I could have done.  I remember long, dull, ugly days when all I did was sit and play computer games, lacking the spiritual and mental energy to just get up and do something.  But I overcame it - I forcibly pulled myself out of it - and that, I think is going to be the big memory from 2011.

The year has balanced itself out.  It was like winning $10,000 in the lottery and using it to pay of $15,000 of debt.  I'd have been happier to win $100,000, but I think I would have wasted most of it.

If 2011 has taught me anything, it's this:  it's okay to be sad, but do not despair; the end of a chapter is not the end of the story.  And it's okay to be happy, but keep your feet on the ground, or something will sweep them out from under you.

All things zero out in the end, but at least you can keep the good memories and deliberately forget the rest.

It's been a good enough year.  A "meh" year.  But because I've learned how to avoid and overcome the "mehs", next year will be that much better.  I needed 2011 in order to prepare for 2012.

Now...please bring on 2012.  I want to see what I can make of it.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

I read a book! The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi

I'm not often moved to talk about a book I've read - mainly because I don't read enough.  But in this case, Paolo Bacigalupi has really inspired me to actually write a short critique / reaction thing.

The Windup Girl is a fantastic piece of futuristic science fiction, published in 2010 by Night Shade Books. It's been highly acclaimed as one of the best books of 2010, and was the winner of several sf awards, including the Nebula Award, the Locus Award, the Compton Crook Award and the Hugo.  In other words, it won pretty much all the sf awards.

You might call it cyberpunk, or post-apocalyptic - you might even make an argument for steampunk - but I'd say, just read the darned thing and call it science fiction.  And it's the kind of science fiction I like: thoughtful and mildly disturbing.  Not a utopic Star Trek kind of science/future, nor a post-apocalyptic dystopia like The Time Machine.

It's a scary kind of fiction, the kind that comes across as "it still could happen."

Part of the blurb on the back reads:  "What happens when calories bcome currency?  What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism's genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution?"

There's a term for this genre:  It's ecotopian fiction, wherein the world has undergone (or is undergoing) massive changes because of an environmental shift.  It's also dystopic, which is a fancy way of saying "Life really and truly sucks in this world I made up."  I won't give it all away, because it's worth your while reading it and discovering it for yourself.  Suffice it to say that the plot revolves somewhat (a lot) around the genetic engineering practices that are happening right now, today

If I were to compare this world of Bacigalupi's to anything, I would say "Take the moodiness and overcrowding of Blade Runner, throw in an High Altitude Nuclear Explosion so that all or most of the technology is destroyed, add in some famine, flooding and fires, and sprinkle liberally with political interference by major corporations."  I really enjoyed the world he created.

Before I get into the nitty gritty, I'll say this much:  I almost loved this book.  It's rare that I think about a book I'm reading, once I put it down.  Not the case with The Windup Girl.  Considering the shortness of my attention span, I'm actually surprised at how much I've been thinking about this book, after the fact.

First of all, in terms of style, I'm on the fence.  Some of his scenes are brilliantly written, honestly they are.  The action scenes are worth your time.  The pacing is fantastic - almost.

I have two beefs with the book:  the beginning and the end.

His world is beautiful, vibrant, noisy, claustrophobic, smelly, brilliantly laid out.  But you need to take lessons in Cantonese, Thai, Japanese and anger management to get through the first, oh, 50 pages or so.

You pick the language up as you go along - if you're willing to stick it out.  You learn new words like farang and jai and bodhisattva, and I'm still not sure if they're all actual words or if they're figments of Bacigalupi's imagination (or mispronunciation), but that again is what's so compelling.  I can't tell where reality ends and Bacigalupi  begins, not without doing my own research.

But dang it, I nearly gave up on the book in the first 50 pages, because there were too many new words, too many new people, every chapter began in a new location with new characters - and while it's well executed, it seems like we're picking up part way through the story.  I wouldn't mind it so much if it was only one or two characters, but that many?

As for the ending (the last 50 or so pages), it has the exact opposite problem.  I'm not going to give it away, but, in terms of style, I really had the sense that the last forty pages were rushed, as if Bacigalupi suddenly looked at his watch and said "Oh crap, look at the time!  I'm sorry to have kept you.  Where was I?  Oh yes.  Right, that happened, and then some more stuff happened (and that was very sad), and then it ends."  And that's a crying shame, because I was willing to commit the time to reading the "extended version", if he'd written one.  It's like his pen was running out of ink, so he sacrificed quality for getting-it-done.  Or worse:  like he'd grown tired of writing and researching the danged thing and just wanted it done.

As for the middle 250+ pages, , I couldn't put it down.  The middle makes the book worthwhile.

What I really found refreshing about the book is that it's not set in a place I'm familiar with.  Quite frankly, I'm sick to death of futuristic stories set in the U.S., to the point where I probably won't read it.  Children of Men at least is set in the UK, but even then, it's familiar territory.  (For the record, I watched most of the movie, haven't read the book yet.)

But The Windup Girl is set in Thailand, a place I know almost nothing about (save from what I learned in The King and I), but which has its own rich history and future-history, and which has its own neighbouring rivals and pressures, its own ecosystem, its own weather patterns, its own personality relative to the countries that surround it, and its own aspirations.

And it's not homogenous either:  there are all manner of cultures - most of the Asian, for which I'm glad - plus a wide range of religions and beliefs.

On top of that, you have people from similar backgrounds who have differing personalities - an absolute must, when you don't want to accuse one ethnic group or another of being corrupt, or greedy, or cowardly, or saintly.  What you get, then, is a kaleidoscope of characters - and a fresh pair of eyes to go with it.

The personalities of each character affect their reactions to evolving situations; their actions affect other characters, who act and react according to their personalities and to the changing situations; and the situations in turn influence their personalities.  Oh, and just because he does it right, Bacigalupi also gives characters back stories that show how many of these concurrent personalities have evolved over time, and why.  Brilliant.

The characters themselves are not static, either.  They may or may not learn from their experiences; they may or may not be redeemable; they may be 60% good and 40% rotten, or 40% rotten, 50% selfish, and 10% saintly - you never know, and you won't know as you turn from one page to the next.  It's know...real people.

Character driven?  Plot-driven?  Understatement.  The Windup Girl is the ideal blend of plot and character, where the two are simply inseparable.  Character drives plot, plot causes characters to react.  Very elegant.

Cover of German translation
And like I said in the beginning, what he's writing about - bio-terrorism, genetic engineering, corporate greed versus ecological sustainability - it's already happening now.  Read up on companies like Monsanto, who, on the surface, are trying to overcome real-world challenges, like drought, poor soil conditions, and disease.  Then step back and realize that the genetically engineered (read "patented") seeds are actually sterile, meaning you are utterly reliant on the company to buy fresh seed, season after season.  More importantly, cut away the debate about genetically modified foods and give a harsh, critical look at the practices of the companies that sell them.  (I highly recommend reading this article, even if you don't read The Windup Girl.)

In the olden days, you'd plant a field of wheat; some of the wheat you grind up and make into bread and pastries and spaghetti; some of the wheat you keep, put back in the field, and lo and behold, you have next season's field of wheat.  The ultimate in renewable resources.  The harvest begets itself. 

Now, with genetic engineering - more specifically, with unethical genetic engineering practices - the corporation begets the harvest.  Once you're a farmer and you have nothing but a field of sterile grain, you have no choice but to sell what you've reaped, then take the money back to the corporation to buy next season's workload.  You no longer work as a farmer; you work as an employee of the unethical corporation.

Worse even:  if you're a salaried employee and if your computer breaks, the corporation goes out and buys you a new one.  But if you're "self-employed," if your harvest is lost to a fire, if you've lost a year's worth of labour and you have no money to show for it, you can no longer go out and simply plant another field full of grain.  You have to go back to buy more seed, because the stuff you bought the first time was sterile.  No harvest, no money; no money, no seed, no harvest.  You are SOL, through and through...unless you've invested in insurance, which feeds off your bad luck, etc. etc. etc.

And of course, if the company finds out you've been saving and reusing seeds from one season to the next, you could get sued; or better yet, if the corporation finds its patented products in your fields, even if it was transplanted by natural means (seeds blown across fences, deposited in bird dung), you could be in a world of hurt for unauthorized use of patented products).  It sounds ridiculous, and it's happening.

In a sense, in places where the genetic is king, farmers have become serfs once more, slaves to both government taxes and to the thuggish corporation.

In Bacigalupi's story, he takes it a step further:  these corporations have played god - but they're playing with their own food supply.  I think what he captures most brilliantly is the raw, blind greed of some zealous corporate executives, who are perfectly willing to trade their own sustenance for the prospect of total market domination, even at the risk of massive loss of life.

Finally, what I really found fascinating about this story was the moment when I let go of guessing and let Bacigalupi tell the story.  Usually when I read, I'm trying to anticipate what's going to happen next, sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm close.  But in the reading of this story, I realized I no longer wanted to guess.  I just wanted to know what happened next.
Beautiful DeviantArt by SharksDen

The plot is well engineered and dynamic.  Character A plots X, but independently, Character B plots Y - which will undo X.  Then along comes Character C, who for perfectly rational reasons does Z, which forces Character A to do something spontaneous, which in turn forces the hand of Character B - around and around and around it goes - not confusing, not jarring, just...very, very well done.

Honestly, if he had balanced out the overly busy beginning with the too-minimalist ending, I would have loved this book inside and out.

But who am I to criticize the guy who won pretty much everything you can win in speculative fiction?  He won those awards for very good reasons:  ex-patriotism, research, realism, probability, and an excellent eye on human nature in the 21st century.

--  With thanks to Michael Lorenson for loaning me the book.

-- DeviantArt by SharksDen:  More info here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What I wanna get for Christmas

These days, there are those who say "Commercialism has wiped out all the tradition from Christmas," and there are those who say "You don't even know where half the 'traditions' of Christmas come from, so stop complaining."

I'm going to avoid that whole argument for now, and I'll leave it at this:  this year, I want to make Boxing Day the day for presents under the tree, and I want to do something quiet and contemplative for Christmas.

That said, I'm still a kid at heart.  There are still things I want to get this holiday season and for the year to come.

I want to get out of my chair.  I spend my workdays in a seat.  I spend a lot of my spare time writing, or editing, or mucking about on Facebook.  Dang it, I want to get outside, spend some time with the dog throwing snowballs or hitching her up to a sled and pretending Mont Royal is the new Iditarod.

I want to get better at writing.  I want to be more entertaining, to be more thought-provoking, and to be faster - not in the sense of typing speed, but in the sense of efficiency:  more time spent thinking through the plot and characters, and less time behind the keyboard.

I want to get off my butt and get things accomplished.  Two months have gone by, and I still haven't set up the spare desk in the bedroom.  It's languishing unassembled on the bedroom floor.  I want to stop saying "I'm too tired" and start recognizing when I really mean "I don't want to", then doing it anyhow.

I want to get along better with my coworkers, to leave behind that gut-reaction that prevents me from listening to what they have to say.  I may have made a mistake, and it may take a lot of work to repair it, but isn't it better to be humble and right, than wrong and arrogant about it?

I want to get over myself and out of my own head.  I want to stop taking my goals and my problems so seriously, and not to take my talents for granted either.  I want to look outside the dusty confines of my own brain pan and see what - and who - is out there, what they're up to, what they need and what they see.

I'd like to get more out of my time.  I'd like to practice diligently, but not desperately - writing, singing, drumming - but to practice in moderation, instead of in breathless bouts of zeal.  I want to learn patiently and to apply what I've learned.  They say practice makes perfect; I'd like to practice what's right, slowly and regularly, rather than madly practice the same mistakes over and over again.  I think that applies to life in general, too.

I want to get back in the gym.

I want to get rid of clutter - the material clutter in my apartment, the mental clutter in my head.  I'm not a hoarder, but I'm not actively clearing out the useless junk, either.

I want to get involved in the community.  I want to be engaged in making life a little better for someone else - not just during the holidays, but year round.  I may not have a lot of time - no one does - but to spend a couple of hours every month, it can only do good.

I want to get that sense of pride back, the one I used to get when I collected food for drives, or collected spare coins for food banks, or dropped four or five bag loads of food in the drop boxes.  I want to reclaim my sense of charity.

I want to get more involved in the lives of friends and family.  And that one's going to be tough for me - not because I don't care, but because I tend creep into hiding for weeks and months on end.  That's just my nature.  But it'll be worth it in the end - not only for myself, but maybe...just maybe...I can help someone else crawl out of their shell too.

And most of all, I want to get back to feeling worthwhile:  in the morning, having something to look forward to, no matter how small, something that will get me out of bed at a decent hour; and in the evening, going to sleep with a clear conscience and the sense that I've accomplished something.  I want to say "I did this for somebody today."

And of course, I'd like to get published, but that's another story.

This year, I really don't want anything for Christmas, no presents, no rushing around, no deep theological debates about the meaning of Christmas.  I'd like maybe a turkey dinner with my mother, a dog at my feet, a mug of hot chocolate in my hands and a movie on TV, but nothing more than that.

For now, you can keep your arguments about commercialism and big box stores undercutting the little guy during the holiday blitz.  You can keep your trees and your glittery lights, your hand-to-hand combat that is Christmas shopping, the stress and drama that is the modern family dinner, and you can keep your purchase-inducing Christmas music, those cheap and old-familiar tunes you blare over loud speakers at strip malls.

All I really want for Christmas is a New Year.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A miner question - or, What Did I Learn this NaNo?

It's been a busy couple of months, to say the least.  The fact that it's been a full month between entries is a good indication that I've been otherwise indisposed.  And what, pray tell, should have absconded with so much of my time?

Darned if I haven't been asking myself the same question.  "Dog" and "data reruns" come to mind, but I know there was also a NaNo involved.

This morning, I was thinking, "Man, am I glad to get back to other projects again!"  I thought of Mummer, and how much more I love the story - I mean, the characters are really coming through now, the plot makes more sense, the historical details are cleaner - in fact, the sheer amount of work I've done so far makes rewriting the end just that much more intimidating!  I'm terrified that the ending won't do the beginning sufficient justice!

And I thought "You know, I've got some great feelings about Lady Butcher, too!"  That one just seemed to come together all by itself - granted, with a lot of research, but it all fell together.  The characters came alive in the very first draft, the plot was solid - the ending was rushed, but I would expect nothing less.  Starting and finishing a novel in under four months will do that to your story.

And yet, this last NaNo...oof.  Technically, the piece has some superb moments.  See, the whole thing was designed to be a series of vignettes, or even chapbooks, each with unique and individual characters and their own stories, leading up to a final conclusion.  It was supposed to be about the rise of two new species and the sunset of the human race.  In fact, there are some parts I hope to salvage - the opening vignette, the second vignette, and the fourth (that one involves a train wreck, some explosions and a horrific revelation).  Each of those have a certain lucid-dream quality about them that gives me the willies (in a good way).

But overall, the whole story sucks!

Die, meandering and pointless tome!  Die!

I finished my NaNo on the last day of November, which is highly unusual for me.  For my second NaNo, I wrote a total 177,000 words in 30 days, the equivalent of 3 short novels - and it goes without saying I can muscle my way through a 72-hour marathon pretty well, too.  It wasn't entirely a case of my energy and motivation going AWOL (though that was partially the case); it was because there was a lot of heavy lifting involved.

I actually said to my mother "I love this idea, but man, I wish someone else would write the book for me."  She suggested Tobin Elliott.  Tobin, we should talk.  (*Call meeeeeee!*)

It's not the first time I've written something I didn't enjoy, and it's not the first time I've quit a project after or partway through the writing of it.  As a matter of fact, during the last 72-hour novel marathon, I actually cut out about 50 pages during the marathon because the story was going the wrong way.  There were details I need to use in another book, but I'd been trying too hard to wedge them into the one story.

So I've begun to realize that a good story - the one with the most potential - is more often mined than crafted.  Even Stephen King said in On Writing that a good story is found.

Well actually, what he said was "Your job isn't to find these ideas, but to recognize them when they show up." 

I would disagree a little.  I would recognize a 1944 aircraft worker's dance ticket if I saw it, but I think I'll have a better chance of finding one in an antique shop, and a non-existent chance of stumbling across it in a pile of salty Montreal slush.

I would rather say, "Be present, be open-minded, and even if the ideas is half-baked, write it down so you can judge its merit later."

Writing, I have discovered, is a lot like pulling a dirty, shapeless lump of minerals out of the ground and seeing what you can make of it.  But you have to go mining first.

Coal for diamonds

Let's say you hit something that's harder than the dirt around it.  You pick it off, rub off some of the dirt, and you realize, yes, you have "something." 

It could nothing but a chip of granite wrapped in clay. 

Or it could be a precious mineral you're not familiar with, like Boron or Cobalt:  very useful, extremely valuable, but on the surface, it looks like pretty bland stuff.

Sometimes you fail to recognize its potential for all the dirt and inclusions, so you toss it over yours shoulder and pass over a perfectly useful mineral.  People who say "Oh, I can't write, my writing sucks, I'll never be good enough, no one is ever going to read something I wrote" are the ones who mistake diamonds for coal.

But there are those who experiment with what seems like an obscure and relatively useless substance - like the people who discovered that galena could be used not just in kohl (ancient mascara), but also in batteries and in the earliest wireless communications.  It took a long time and a lot of experimentation to get from mascara to crystal radios, but someone did it, because someone experimented with a seemingly innocuous idea.

So be not so quick to assume that what you've found is worthless.  Sometimes it only needs another element, or better refinement to make it useful.  Sometimes its worth is utterly unknown - for now.

These are the plot ideas I often come back to, time and time again, viewing it from this angle, from that era, with this combination of characters - such has been the case with Her Poison Voice.  The only way I can know for certain if it's a good or bad idea is by writing the whole thing out; and as I get closer to what I want, I can salvage more and more of the story, transmuting it, adding as-yet-undiscovered elements, until I hit the sweet spot. 

I know there's something here, but I just can't seem to make it pull together.  Yet. 

These are the stories that require a lot of delicate cutting and polishing to bring out the inner light; but it's worth it.  It is so, totally, worth it - because these are the ones that you've worked for, the ones you can be most proud of.  When I get it right, I think Her Poison Voice will be my favourite, even if it isn't my best.  It'll be my favourite, because I haven't given up on it.

Semi-precious gems

Even if you are a fantastic writer, you're not always going to be able to put out diamonds.  You have to mix it up sometimes.  And deliver coal instead.

Ellis Peters wrote 20 books in the Cadfael series alone.  The eleventh in the series, An Excellent Mystery, was such a beautiful story that Edith Pargeter (Peters' real name) has successfully ousted all past and future authors as my all-time favourite.  There's simply no room on that pedestal for Peters and another author.  I have to create more pedestals, like one entitled "Favourite New Canadian," or "Favourite New Author who Should be Canadian but Hasn't Had the Good Sense to Move North Yet".

But my word...I think Peters had an aversion to the number thirteen, because the 13th in the series, The Rose Rent, was so strangely written (and so sappy, and so un-Cadfael-y) that I swear, she let a ghost-writer tackle it for her.

Fortunately, she regained my adoration with the 16th in the series, The Potter's Field, which is in part inspiration for Lady Butcher.

That's not to say that The Rose Rent was badly written.  Technically, there was nothing wrong with it.  It just stands out from the rest of the series.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if some people said that The Rose Rent was actually one of her best.  So long as the story is logical, well constructed and well written, then the only difference between "good story" and "bad story" is the reader's point of view.

Still, because the story seems so out of place from the rest of the series, I didn't like it nearly as much as the other nineteen.

So perhaps it wasn't a lump of coal in place of a diamond.  Maybe it simply didn't suit my tastes.



<-- Still semi-precious.

But not my favourite. -->

Flashes in the pan

Sometimes you get onto something, but there's never enough substance to make it worth your while.  It's like finding flakes of gold, when you're really after the nuggets.  But you have a flash in the pan.  You know there's something here.  Maybe it's an indication of vein; maybe it's an indication that someone further upstream has sneezed too hard and lost his gold filling.  Who knows. 

The best you can do is patiently collect what particles you can find - a scene here, a character there - and melt it down into something you can use.  No inkling should go to waste; two partial ideas fused together can create an epiphany. 

Or, as King said it, "There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun."  I'll agree with that one.

That's basically what happened with Mummer's the Word.  Random protons and electrons I'd been collecting for years suddenly came together and created a new atom. 

I'd been experimenting with other characters who'd been robbed of their ability to speak; I'd also gone a year and a half without being able to fully open my mouth, and I was just at the point in my learning of French where I could understand everything that was being said, but not enough to reply.  I'd always had a fascination with Camp X, I'd long ago developed a love for all things '30s and '40s, and I had just come off a writing jag for some old radio plays I'd been working. 

Then on October 31st, 2007, the title came to me, and without realizing I'd been collecting little bits of story for the last few years, blammo - everything came together in one neat and tidy package, and I wrote the story in 9 days (hence, "Nine Day Wonder").  I even stole a character directly out of one of the radio plays, personality, name and background intact.

But even though all the elements smashed together quite suddenly, I was already in the process of trying to think up a story.  There was an active, creative process involved, followed by nine days of intense writing, and four solid years of reworking, editing and polishing.  And even when this story is accepted somewhere, there will be more work to do.

So if there is a flash in the pan, even if it isn't a fat nugget of literary goodness, write it down somewhere.  Use it somewhere; use it multiple times, if you need to.  Maybe it doesn't go in this project.  Maybe it's a puzzle piece out of a different box.  Maybe this character or plot device belongs in another project, one you haven't conceived yet.

But you'll never know what will become of a half-idea, if you don't actively collect all the little pieces and blend them together to see what you get.

Hikaru Dorodango
And then there are times when you feel like you're polishing a big old ball of dirt.  The Japanese have made an art of it. I'm not trying to say anything at all against Japanese writing, either - I mean it most literally!  The Japanese have made an art of polishing big balls of dirt.  The final results are actually quite compelling.  Very shiny.  Very smooth.

But underneath all that hard work, it's still just a big ball of dirt.

Or worse:  on Mythbusters, they actually turned a big old pile of dung into a work of art.

That glimmering ball of scat is exactly how I feel about my latest NaNo Otherlings.  Sure it's pretty, sure it's technically well put together, but it's all flash and no substance, like a Michael Bay production.  Well - not quite.  Like a Michael Bay production, it has substance, but unfortunately, that substance is putrid and can only be handled under controlled circumstances, with gloves and a gas mask.

You can spend a lot of time polishing one project and one project alone, and you'll get a very shiny project; but be sure that when someone cracks the surface, they'll find something other than poop at its heart.

Sometimes, it's okay to let go.

Just don't quit mining.  Because...

Diamonds in the Rough

Every once in a while, you stumble across something truly special, something that cannot be made, but must be, in some ways, unmade - shaped, cut and polished with extreme care to bring out, not the artist's own quality, but the true, inherent value of the story itself.
 Sometimes, you pick up a black rock, chip away at the ugly exterior, and discover a dull gleam of light within.  With rising curiosity, you scrape off more of the inclusions, more of the crusty exterior, and discover with growing excitement that you really, really have something here - something that's well formed and symmetrical, something that seems to glow with a light of its own.  The idea's so good that you're afraid to speak it out loud until the whole story is written.

Sometimes you can see the nascent story for exactly the way it is - the way Michelangelo could see the figure of a man in a formless block of marble - and all you need to do is chip away the extra bits, polish it, and put it on display.  With all the flushed obsession of a maniacal genius, you carve out the plot, nick out the characters, sand down the grammar and pacing and research; and when the moment has passed, you blow off the last bits of dust and wonder that this thing, this marvel of art, came out of your own imagination, and not someone else's.  It is a thing removed from you, like a child prodigy you brought into this world.

That was the case with Lady Butcher.  The whole thing just came to me in one chunk, characters, plot, place and all, like Athena springing forth fully formed from the forehead of Zeus.  And yes, partway through a marathon, I had to chip away enormous pieces of the story because they were leading me astray.

But it wasn't a plot so much written as it was discovered.  I intervened here and there (partially to add length and suspense to the mix), but the essential story itself I was able to capture betwixt carefully chosen words.

I still have some polishing to do (these things happen when you've only been working on a story for 4 months), but the core value of the story is there, its potential value already visible.

But again, I found this gem because I was already mining.  I wanted a story to write for the Muskoka Novel Marathon, and I actually had two or three competing ideas; it was Lady Butcher that had the most potential, and boy, am I glad I didn't ditch it when it first came to mind.

So what did I learn from this year's NaNo?

First, that it's okay to let some projects fall by the wayside - so long as you gave it the benefit of the doubt for as long as you could.  Better to go back to the mine, rather than wasting your time polishing your one and only ball of dung.

Second, you can only measure your quality by comparing your own works against each other.  If you have only one project, you can't tell whether it's your best writing or not.  If you have two stories, you can only say "this one is better than that."  But if you have a few ideas on the go, you can line them up in order of highest potential, and work on only those that are worth your time and effort. 

The more you write, the better you can measure the value of one story over another.

Thirdly, today's half-baked idea is one half of tomorrow's great idea.  There are parts of Otherlings that will be reincarnated somewhere else, I'm sure of that.  I just don't know what the missing elements are yet.

Finally, I realized that the more ideas you have, the easier it is to let some ideas go.  The premise of Otherlings is great.  The premise of Her Poison Voice - even the plot itself - is great. 

But Mummer's the Word and Lady Butcher are two great and complete stories, with well-developed plots, and awesome characters, and the writing is solid, if I do say so myself.  Those are worth my time and dedication right now. 

Once they're done, I can look at Her Poison Voice again, or Allua, or Helix, or The Fog of Dockside City, or even Otherlings, working from the story with highest potential and interest, down to the ones that need the most work - unless I stumble across another gem, as I search for the solution to another story.

So yes, sometimes, a flash in the pan could be fool's gold, or somebody's lost tooth, or the reflection of the sun.  All that glisters is not gold; and no matter how well written or how much time you put into them, not all of your stories will be great. 

That's what makes great stories so precious:  their rarity. 

But sometimes...if you're lucky, if you're patient and if you are present, you'll get what you're looking for, and so much more.

So yes, there will be disappointments.  But unless you get out there and dig, you'll never find what's gold.