Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Electronic Book Revolution: A Personal View

This year my offspring gave me a Nintendo DS for Christmas with the little mini Zelda adventure on it. I admit I'm having fun. I also like the size of the contraption and the little stylus to control the action by touching the screen. I'm enjoying it so much that last night I had an amazing thought: if I like this little gizmo so much how would it be to read a book on one? Or something similar as I have no idea what a Kindle or Sony Reader looks like or any other electronic book reader.

Now if you knew me and mine you would know incredibly revolutionary this thought is. I may have been one of the first people on the planet to own a computer, but I only succumbed to either a laptop or a cell phone this last couple of years, and only this morning did I become the proud owner of an iPod for the first time in my life. It was an anniversary gift.

I love books. I love the weight, the texture, the feel, the scent of them. I love the way that the black ink print looks on the creamy or yellowing pages. I love paper. I love the musty used bookstore smell of old paperbacks. I love the artwork on the cover and I love to handle books and I love the look of a wall full of bookshelves full of books.

Replacing all that with a little handheld electronic device? Can I enjoy this? Will it satisfy my aesthetic sensibilities and my sensual pleasure in reading? More importantly how tangible is it? If I were to publish my novel would I feel like I have a book out if it was just puffs of ethereal pixels that I can't even see?

When I consider all these things, my Luddite self battling with my geek self, I remember that the vast majority of my authorial outpourings have always been published electronically and these days I do the majority of my reading online. Where is the difference? Furthermore how many trees could I save and how much easier to move without fifty cartons of books to hump around? Could I just reserve for my book collection art books and reference? The old beautifully bound book of poetry? Perhaps paper books become works of art in of themselves and the rest can fit on my electronic reader.

Of course the wheels of change can move quickly, or it might be a while before I take the plunge, but the thought is there and the journey begun.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Cause Without a Rebel

I don't find the myth of the starving artist to be alluring. I don't relish the idea of the writer in the garret, scotch bottle at his right, cigarette smoldering in the overflowing ashtray. I'm not drawn to self-destructive he-men like Jackson Pollock splattering his work over giant floor-sized canvases while his wife sacrifices her art and happiness on the altar of his genius. I don't need to die young, wrapped bone and sinew in the chassis of my Porsche 550.

There are days when I actually consider that might be why I'm not a better artist.

Then I remember this guy, a printmaker of some skill, which was a friend of the family. My mother and her husband were both amazing artists in their fields but both suffered from anxiety disorder as well as other emotional scarring and trauma. This printmaker actually said "I wish I could have panic attacks so I could be a great artist". Obviously he lacked the imagination required to move from 'competent' to 'great'.

When I have my moments of angst over my lack of success as an artist I like to think about Raphael. He was hugely successful, very prolific, handsome, and amiable. What more could you ask for? Oh wait, he died at 37 years old. Ok, but that wasn't too bad right? After all it was the Renaissance, more dangerous times and all.

Wait, hold on… I'm rummaging through my hard drive for more examples of happy productive artists (preferably ones that were slow starters because they were too busy just sort of wandering around aimlessly until their mid-thirties)…

Hmm… Rembrandt won't do because though he started out happy and successful (in love with his wife Saskia) he ended up with tragedy and poverty.

Maybe painters aren't the best source for the happy successful artists sans angst? I should turn to literature.

Ah! Henry Miller.

I'm sure he had his moments of angst but he lived a very long life, was successful during his lifetime, and screwed tons and tons of beautiful interesting broads. There you go. Oh and on the subject of long lives I did think of a painter: Picasso! So he was an asshole to all around him. I'm sure he was totally happy.

I, too, can be a happy successful artist. Of course if I'm not an asshole will that hinder me? Perhaps I should cultivate being more of a jerk?

Or maybe, just maybe, I should stop navel gazing and write something besides another blog post?

Oh, ok, I just have to share this will all three of you that read this: so last night I'm trying to go to sleep but the lovely lady has on her show because she's not quite sleepy yet and I'm trying to ignore it, but you know I can't ignore dialogue. I start to listen whether I want to or not. I'm not sure what show she was watching but I wish I had a photographic memory so I could share with you all (that's you five over there) the deathless bad writing. I never ever heard anything so hackneyed in my life. Without seeing the actors or other distracting visual content I could just focus on the clich├ęs. It was horrendous. I had to turn on my light and start reading Elmore Leonard before I made an ass of myself and told her just how crappy the show was. Would that have qualified me as an asshole artist? Did my restraint forever doom me to be just another wannabe?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Little Boy with a Wooden Sword

According to Helen Ginger's blog this morning "History Sells" and that's good news for history genre writers everywhere. I'm not really addressing the financial possibility of that because for me writing is an art form, and as such if I put a dollar figure on the activity from the start I'm doomed to write dross. But knowing that other people out there love to immerse themselves in the past as much as I do is a consolation and a motivation - but why do they?

My last blog post addressed how people from a hundred years ago would view the passage of time differently and that's just one of the numerous ways that our ancestors differ from us. I don't believe there is any one thing in terms of the details that singles out why historical fiction appeals to people. Certainly it's not the little things like time or clothes or what people ate or the weapons they used. Even though each history buff has a specific interest or period that draws their attention what makes a genre appealing to particular people is always something transcendent from the details. I believe there is something fundamentally different in historical fiction from all contemporary fiction and that is the presence of clearly defined roles and expectations. Whether or not we are talking about a heroine who breaks the rules the comfort lies in the rules itself.

Much as I think that overriding appeal of the fantasy genre is the ability to have very clearly defined good and evil, something unbelievable in contemporary stories, historical fiction allows men to be men and women to be women. Before everyone screams at me and throws cupcakes (or is that cream pie?) let me elucidate a little further.

As a man working in an office four days a week the idea of walking down Allen Street with a Colt .45 Peacemaker in my holster and a clear purpose in my mind, to arrest the bad guy or shoot him if necessary, is a form of freedom from restraint. In my historical world I can dust up a guy with my bare knuckles over a matter of honor and not be considered a macho asshole with too much testosterone. For a woman, though she might be inclined to grab up a saber on occasion, I believe it is often equally liberating to be free from worrying that if she appears beautifully dressed in satins and velvets, with her hair done up in a delicate net ornamented with pearls that she is not being frivolous or submitting to sexism. After all it is 1600 what else would she be wearing? I simplify, of course, but I think you get the point.

Historical fiction makes dipping into the mores and culture of past ages sexy and safe. I really wouldn't want to be walking around in the French Revolution, particularly if I was a nobleman, nor would I want to be a woman dressed so tightly in a corset that I need smelling salts to revive me every time I had to breathe, but to have the freedom to imagine myself there through the writing or reading of historical fiction is a form of wondrous time travel that is, literally, timeless.

Returning to men and women - we can remake history in our own likeness when we are the authors. The heroine can pick up her skirts, trim them short with her dagger, and then take up saber to fight for her cause. We can make sure that the good guys really are good and that the cause was just. Or we can be gritty and endure the past and all its injustice and social inequality knowing that once we close the book we have returned to our own time, our own culture. How many women with two jobs, two kids, and a mortgage enjoy the adventures of a Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth, or an Ancient Egyptian Queen? How many men with a cubicle existence embrace the single-minded duty of Richard Sharpe as he leads his small doughty band of men in the war against Napoleon?

Life might be rough, or dirty, but it's clear and uncomplicated compared to our daily lives - and we get to play with swords.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Trip Back

When I write historical fiction one of the biggest imaginative hurdles I have to overcome is to truly understand the nature of time as my characters experienced it. If you ever watched one of PBS's reality series where it takes modern volunteers and sticks them in the past as in Colonial House you might get what I mean. I came to this thought, this morning, because of the contemplation of my own day.

Yesterday some technical issues reared their head with the server I maintain. After a mid-length call to my tech guru last night I realized that I had basically graduated from the 'grasshopper' stage and he was setting me an assignment: do it yourself. So upon rising this morning the first thing on my modern multitasking mind was how to fit a lesson in MySQL into my already full schedule. I work four days a week at the 'job' and then three days a week I work from home managing and participating (both the same thing really) in my community web site, hosted on my own server (thus the need for lessons in MySQL management).

This being one of my three days in my home office I needed to cram all my writing in (blog, book, collaborative), continue to clean up after the holiday festivities, get my laundry done, and generally make myself useful around the flat since the other half of the equation works outside the home for all seven days of the week. The phone will ring, Twitter will chirp, instant messages will fly back and forth at Pan Historia, music will be played from a small plastic disc inserted into a tray in a machine capable of tasks that people didn't even imagine they would ever need to do one hundred years ago.

This is when I began to marvel at the quality of the day of one of my ancestors as little as one hundred years ago. Imagine I was that ancestor and my tastes were exactly the same. I would have to do my morning chores, probably at the crack of sparrow's fart because oil or candles or even electricity would have been a finite resource and I needed all the free daylight I could get. My chores would include bathing which would either require cracking ice, hauling water, or heating water on the stove, or all of the above. Personal hygiene alone would take a good chunk of time, perhaps an hour if I was fastidious or it was a long haul to the well? If I was the one doing the laundry (say I was a bachelor) that would take a substantial amount of time. There is the beating, scrubbing on the washboard, and hanging on the line. In the winter I guess my house would be full of my shirts and shorts vying for space by the stove? Dishes, like washing the face, would require much hauling of water and heating of water. I suppose I could peel some spuds while that water heated up.

Are there animals to be fed? How about cooking? I guess I might have one of those big cast iron ranges and it would need to be fed wood or coal - same with the stove to heat the house. That would involve chopping and stacking and fetching from the woodshed or at the very least a visit to the coal shed with the scuttle to be filled. I'm still working on the chores here. I haven't even gone to my day job yet or, even more interesting to me, sat down at my desk to write where I would take paper, costly and thick, from the drawer, get out the quill pen, dip it in the ink, and then laboriously compose my thoughts by written word in longhand.

Now it's time to go to the mill or the general store or wherever it is I work. I might walk or ride depending on the distance and my income level. If I walk it could easily be an hour or so from my home. If I ride I first have to take care of the horse in the morning: feed, water, clean out the stall. Then I have to saddle up and even my ride will take some time. There are no five minute car trips. With the exception of my peeling potatoes while the water heats up there is no 'multi-tasking' in this world. The day begins early and each moment is filled up with tasks from profound to laborious to simple. Only the wealthy had true leisure time because even making the simplest meal was work. It seems to me that time must have both gone slower for the me of a hundred years ago and at the same time have been so filled with labor of the hands that it went by as fast as a winter day turns back to night. Imagine going to visit your relatives for Christmas and taking a month to do it because after traveling for a week or whatever you certainly didn't want to just turn around again?

In 2008 my head is filled with too many little things so that my thoughts are like mayflies - destined to dance around in swirling and confusing storms for a short time and die. A hundred years ago my thoughts would have been like oaks, born of acorn, slowly maturing, and then a great spreading tree of ideas, all branching and of the same wood.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Getting Ready to Fire Up the Press

Time to take a long and welcome stretch and then consider what the New Year will bring.

This year, for me, I anticipate many changes, but what goals might I set for myself in terms of writing?

As a collaborative writer I'm approaching something rather exciting at Pan Historia. One of my collaborative 'novels' is coming to an end. We are in the process of planning a conclusion and tying up all the loose ends. Ideally it can then be read just like any other novel with a beginning, middle, and end. I would like to also propose to my fellow writers at The Midnight People that we edit and then publish the work. One of the really exciting developments of the computer and internet age is the greater freedom that writers have to get published. Of course the Vanity Press has existed as long as the printing press, but nowadays self-publishing with all the trimmings of self-promotion and marketing is now a real possibility. I anticipate a fairly small audience for our fantasy novel, but I think it would be a great thing to hold the real life paperback version of our collaborative work in our hands. The sense of accomplishment alone would be worth it, even if we don't entirely recoup the costs of the project.

In addition to a print version of the completed The Midnight People I hope to extend the publishing option to all of Pan Historia. A number of years ago we put together a compilation book that we named the Pan Historia Birthday Book. I had planned for a new one every year but sadly that was more work than I could manage, but I think it's time for another. It sounds to me, reading what I have just wrote, that I really plan to enter the world of publishing, albeit in my small and quirky way. Pan Press here I come!

Which leads me to my own solo literary effort: it's time to get serious about my novel. My New Year's resolution will involve dusting off my research, and then writing at least a page a day. If I can write a page of blog every day… well you get the picture. I won't wait a week to start, I'll start today. There is nothing like grabbing the moment and not letting good intentions get away. I finally realized, in a blinding moment of revelation, what the block was to the novel and that was that I had character, no problem, but I hadn't really decided what the damn plot was. So I will work on a rough outline and try and hammer out the story arc.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Advice: Don't Always Take the Advice of Experts

I read a lot of writing tips, and as you might have noticed by now I even write a few. My credentials might be slimmer than some of the other folks who tell you what to do and what not to do when it comes to writing, but I've been writing fiction for a long time and I have sat at the feet of some of the best. So here is my advice for what it is worth: do not always heed writing tips.

One of the most common tips for beginning writers is to trim out the fat, kill your darlings, and stick to the action. On the surface this is a great piece of advice. After all modern readers get bored quickly in our micro-blogging and text messaging age and beginning writers often make the mistake of including lots of dull and go nowhere description. But if you go back the basics and actually read the classics you will find that some of the most beautiful and inspiring passages of fiction are spent in consideration of a landscape, or describing the interior of a room, or even the rambling thoughts of the author suddenly intruding. Most of that wonderful description would be marked with red pencil and be left on the floor by conscientious modern editors getting to the action.

So if it's going to be cut - why include it? First of all there are other ways to get published these days, but second of all just the act of writing it can be a learning experience. Third of all if you're an artist you just might succeed in getting that description to be essential to the heart of your story and get it past the well meaning editors. We're not all meant to be mean, clean and spare as Elmore Leonard.

Don't add fillips of deathless prose description just for filler, and don't get caught up in something so mundane that it serves zero purpose, but do remember that you're painting a picture in your reader's mind. There is an art to what to reveal and what to conceal. You might well leave out detailed descriptions your character's appearance, but create a deep visual of their bedroom or workspace:

Scattered on Wyatt's desk were discarded pistachio shells. Weaving in and out of a tangle of electronic wires were opened bills, read then jammed into available spaces to be ignored. In a green glass bowl of pebbles laid the thick silver band he usually wore.

This tells us more about Wyatt than any description of his commanding brown eyes, agile capable fingers, or manly chest would ever do. There is a purpose to the description - to show us a bit about who Wyatt is without resorting to language like: "Wyatt was a slob, and never threw away or filed his bills. He loved eating pistachio nuts. He always took his ring off when working because it was too tight."

The best advice on writing is always from the best writers. If you want to know how to write, read and read from the best. Examine their novels, short stories, poetry. Take it apart to see what makes it tick. Ask your self questions as you read. Read it twice. The first time should always be for the sheer pleasure of it, but then read it again and tease it apart to see how that writer kept you enthralled and engrossed. How did they break the rules and get away with it? How did the flights of seemingly irrelevant description or musings on the meaning of life actually enliven the piece for you, or would you have used the red pencil there (not all great writers are infallible)? Writing tips are a place to get started, but don't let them mold you into a boring pedestrian writer that has no voice of your own.

And you know what else? It's ok if you write a few books before anyone ever wants to read them. Like any other art form else there is an apprenticeship to writing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Where Do Ideas Come From

Personally it always seems to me that ideas just pop into my head from no where at all. Seriously. One minute your mind is blank or considering your shopping list for the day (shit that reminds me I was supposed to look up the ingredients for Duck ala Orange today before I head out and here am I, still in my PJ's writing a frikkin' blog again) and the next minute an idea has burst out of your skull like Athena girded for battle. So clearly the ancients had it right and it is the job of the Muses to put that stuff in your head. Or is it?

Human beings are sponges and artists and writers even bigger sponges. We are constantly absorbing all the input that is rushing into our febrile brains; or we should be if we want to call ourselves artists. Observation is one of the greatest tools of art. We need to be looking around at the world around us all the time and taking it in, adapting it for our own creative impulses. I am influenced by the news, movies, books, other people, nature, you name it… and all that stuff feeds into my brain, gets melted down, re-mixed, and spews back out in the form of words, ideas, and colors (when I'm painting). I paint when the ideas are non-verbal. I write when the ideas are stories. It's ok to be influenced by what you have read or watched, but it's always good to take a long hard look at what you produce and ask yourself is it 'influenced by' or is it completely derivative? With all this constant feedback coming in it's sometimes hard to know when you're being original. Bearing in mind that you don't want to be a copyist remember that all literature and all art (movie, manga, pottery, whatever) is an ongoing conversation between creators and viewers/users. There is no single pristine piece of work that has never been touched by a previous idea. Even the Lascaux cave paintings are working off previous ideas.

They say there are only seven plots, and if you flense it to the bone that's probably about right so you can never be entirely original. Don't sweat it. You still want to be careful though that you're not just picking up something in its entirety and putting your name on it. Even fan fiction can be entirely original and yet be playing off of someone else's riff. Find your voice, your own ideas, and pull it in.

So back to ideas: I often get an idea from another work of art or entertainment. Often a movie will give me an idea for a character. I like the movie, I like the character, but what I really want to do is to pull that character out and put him somewhere else and see what he will do. And while the original movie I viewed might be my jumping off point by the time I have pulled in other source material it's all looking a lot different. It could be a book or a story I read in the newspaper, or even a memory of something I loved or was intrigued by twenty years ago. Some ideas have a much longer gestation period than others. I might buy a tube of paint, some particular hue I haven't tried before, and it might sit unopened in my paint tray for a couple years before it becomes just the right color for the job at hand. There is no rush to use up ideas.

Don't treasure ideas too much either. As I have pointed out they are unlikely to be entirely new and original to you. Ideas are like colds. They like to be spread about to bring joy to each new carrier. Someone might easily have the same idea or a similar one to you and they didn't have to even poach it from you in the first place. One idea is too trite and overused? Find another one. They are all around you. In fact they're literally littering up the place if you just open up your senses and take in all the data.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dialogue Tips from The Postman Always Rings Twice

I have been reading the sensible dialogue tips at the Blood Red Pencil and thinking about my own dialogue tips.

Dialogue comes naturally to me as a writer, maybe because I started out being interested in acting and took that to my role-playing, but even my childish note books with my scrawled scifi story has those tell-tale quotes. Now that I think about it one of my first completed pieces of writing was actually a play with hefty dialogue between the three characters. Now I wonder where I stashed that little gem?

I can literally hear my characters speak and I pick up on their cadence and rhythm. In fact if I can't hear a character speaking out loud in my head I know I'm in trouble with that character. They are not yet alive in my imagination.

My characters talk and jabber at me and I quite often run long monologues in my head from my particularly vocal characters. I have a friend who considers her own inner character monologues to be a form of channeling, and it may be. After all where does inspiration come from? The Muses?

Once I sit down to write a scene though the dialogue must not become a monologue however. It must reveal something about the story, conceal others if I'm still trying to keep my readers guessing, and it must interact with the other characters, even if they are only actively listening. The voice of my characters each must be distinct. It should be fairly clear who is talking even if you removed every tag, every reference to action outside of the dialogue.

For instance much of the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain is propelled by dialogue and little of it is tagged, yet the voice of his characters is so real and distinctive, each voice clear as a bell, that you know who is talking. And Cain does not write "he said" or "she said" either. I'm not sure, because I haven't read it in years, but I'm pretty sure if you counted you wouldn't find an example of either in the entire quick and explosive novel. He doesn't replace 'said' with adverbs or with other possibilities like 'growled, yelled, barked,' or 'throatily'. He lets the dialogue and the spare description do the work.

I'm now going to suggest something outrageous in the history of writing how-to tips: throw away the damned thesaurus. No good comes of a thesaurus. I have probably been guilty as hell in previous writing pieces in suggesting that people look for different words to say the same thing, but what you really need is to cultivate a love of words so that they are handy in your head, not fake it by grabbing the thesaurus. Do not, please I beg you, write 'amber liquid' instead of 'beer'.

Back to dialogue: actually never do the preceding when writing dialogue unless the character is some kind of odd pedant with a penchant for thesaurus cruising and then peppering his speech with oddities. Do clip out all unnecessary tags when possible. Leave just enough to indicate who is talking at the beginning of passage of conversation. Occasionally you will have call to write a little description of what the characters are doing, but keep it spare and keep it important to the dialogue and to telling the story.

From The Postman Always Rings Twice:

"He suspicions us, Frank."
"It's the same one, he knew there was something wrong, soon as he saw me standing there, keeping watch, he still thinks so…"
"What are we going to do?"
"I don't know. It all depends on the stepladder, whether he tumbles what it's there for. What did you do with that slug, shot?"
"I still got here in the pocket of my dress."
"God Almighty, if they had arrested you back there, and searched you we'd have been sunk."
I gave her my knife, cut the string of the bag, and take the bearings out. Then I made her climb back, raise the back seat, and put the bag under it. It would look like a rag, like anybody would keep with the tools.
"You stay back there, now, and keep an eye on that cop. I'm going to snap these bearings into the bushes one at a time, and you've got to watch if he notices anything."

It's quite clear who is speaking. Cain starts us off in this passage with the name 'Frank' and goes from there without any other indicator but the order of the line and tone of voice. The description is spare and to the point. It serves the story. She doesn't flick her auburn locks out of her eyes and give him a pert but 'knowing' look with her emerald eyes.

Of course not everyone writes like Cain nor should they. Your own style and unique voice is essential, but the basic principles of good writing are: show us, don't tell us, and keep all the words, even the dialogue and description, in service of the plot.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Gender Role Play and Collaborative Writing

Traditionally it's quite normal for an author to speak for characters of a different gender to his or her own. Gender is usually inferred right there on the cover by the name of the author and then confirmed on the back with an author photo. Once the story is started it's quite alright for an author to slip on the persona of male or female and we are all quite happy here with our coffee, because we know we're being told a story. This has not applied equally over all genres however. Romance, deemed to be of interest only to women, often has male authors writing under female pseudonyms or gender non-specific names to leave the reader to make the assumption. The same has applied, in the past, to women writing in the Mystery genre, and I'm assuming it still could happen in the Western Genre.

It's quite different when an author leaves the safety of solitary authorship and joins the ranks of the collaborative writer, a group that has roots and relationship to role-playing games. Why it should have evolved to be so I'm not exactly sure because I often played a fiery sultry vixen half-elf enchantress who liked to wear skimpy clothes and could use a knife like a ninja assassin, but then a lot of guys got used to playing female back in the early days of D & D when nary a female dared show her face in that pimply testosterone heavy crowd (I see a relationship to Elizabethan theater here). Things are very different now, I know, but I'm talking over twenty years ago. Eventually women were allowed into gaming, I'm glad to say, and the last time I played was Vampire the Masquerade where half the players were women. The Vampire game involved a lot more acting and story telling, which I found even more fun than all that dice throwing and long character sheets and endless discussions of percentiles and weapon weight, but it seemed to involve less cross gender play. Perhaps because you were speaking the lines out loud and didn't want to appear foolish - but certainly my group tended to stick to their sex with the exception of the game master and their entire cast of thousands.

When a writer or role player comes online and logs into a site as his or her character there seems to be that same sense of gender association, but there begins a merging of the lines between fact and fiction. Without the visual cues all a person has to go are the written words. Thus when a person signs on to Pan Historia, for example, they are free to commit themselves to a fictional persona, of whatever gender, and then be accepted at 'face' (avatar, bio, etc) value. Meeting and greeting new people as they explore Pan we move people towards this association with character and discourage the standard sex and age questions that prevail in other forms of online social site.

The association with the character is so strong in the role play and related collaborative fiction world of Pan Historia that people often do not remember that the person playing that character and writing those stories is the author. The convention that the author can do as they please in writing for male or female breaks down and the character becomes the author. It doesn't seem to cross into other areas of the character like profession, for instance. If I'm writing a ninja mage (going back to my elf analogy here) no one assumes I'm really a ninja mage or elf. But if the first time they met me I was also presented as a female elf, the assumption would rest squarely that I was a woman in real life. I have to admit that my example breaks down a bit when I played a sadistic killer for the first time. I did have online friends decide I must be a sicko. I consider that flattery; I must have done a damn fine job of writing.

The interesting thing is that, quite obviously, lots of people are writing characters that are not their own gender online, or playing them and everyone knows that. The majority of World of Warcraft characters are not male, yet the majority of their players are. Some players are perfectly open in their forum and other out of character communications and some players choose to remain in character. People turn a blind eye until someone is 'outed'. The whole issue seems to have become less fractious with time as more people realize that it happens all the time online (and try it themselves), but there are still a surprising number of stereotypes and thus a lot of reasons for an individual to prefer not to 'out' themselves as one gender or another in their writing partnerships. We think it shouldn't matter - and it seems to me it really shouldn't - but gender identification is such a fundamental to the bone social programming that we seldom question our gut reactions.

For instance my female character that I had for many years as taken at face value as a strong woman while people assumed the writer was female, but later on people shifted their views and I found her far less successful to write with, including interactions with other collaborative writing partners. The example that comes to mind was her love affair with a male character where suddenly they were fighting and not having a passionate love affair once the writer realized I wasn't a proper woman. In effect his discomfort at writing romantic fiction with a male writer altered the way his character behaved to the point that the story changed radically. This was not an isolated incident.

One positive reason, though, that I can cite for total immersion identification with your characters of the opposite gender is what you learn about gender from it. It can only enhance your writing to really start to relate and understand characters of opposite sex. Of course when a male author sits down to write a novel with a female protagonist (or vice versa) they are doing exactly that: slipping into the skin of that character. It should be no different with any form of writing ultimately.

In online writing relationships I guess the best maxim is: do no harm but have fun and explore new things.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Soundtrack of Art

Ok, completely different tangent, or maybe a tangentially related tangent: I do not put music on to write or to paint.

I love music and have a large and eclectic collection in some varied styles that I enjoy. Another time we can talk about my favorites. Today I want to discuss why people listen to music for everything. I don't have an iPod. I didn't ever having a Sony Walkman (remember those, kiddies?). Right now, because I'm writing and not doing chores (there should always be a difference between those two), I'm listening to the sound of the train. The train sounds different in winter during a blizzard then it does in summer in clear skies. It is infinitely more eerie in winter. It's almost like a foghorn in tone. The bell to warn people off the track sounds much farther away, muffled by the snow that falls. I can also hear the sound the snow plow makes as it passes by, heavy shovel lowered, scraping along the tarmac. Very far in the distance, so far it's nearly inaudible, I can hear sirens.

It's much quieter when the snow falls because much of the sound is dampened by the thick blanket of frosty white. Sometimes you get that wonderful surprising 'thump' as the accumulation of snow grows too heavy for its precarious position on the slanted roof and it comes down in a wet lump and disappears into the snow below. Only a few days ago I was actually listening to birdsong because there were an earful of Cedar Waxwings outside in the branches of the old apple tree and partaking of the brilliant red of the sumac fruit. They would cling to the naked branches like dying leaves refusing to give up the ghost.

All of these sounds would be lost to me if I was sitting here with earphones pressed into my ears or blaring out of my speakers. My life rarely comes with a musical soundtrack. I often wonder if it's the movies that have changed the way people go through life, always with music. When I walk I like to be able to hear the blare of the car horn as I step heedlessly off the pavement, or snippets of a passing conversation made more tantalizing by the lack of context. I'm even amused by the cars that go by, steel chassis vibrating, bouncing on the tires, as the inmate destroys his eardrums. Sometimes I catch a phrase of a favorite song on a summer day as someone drives by with their windows down. Snatched from a random moment like that music retains its evocation.

It's the constant all pervasive and completely ubiquitous use of music that puzzles me. All at once it is the most popular art form and the one most abused. A quiet moment turns your head to a beautiful and provocative painting or sculpture; an erotically set solitaire diamond graces the throat of a pretty woman; a hand woven blanket is sprung from the hope chest and laid upon the guest bed to delight the guest; a bouquet of spring flowers is carefully arranged in the hand blown glass vase. Music we just put on and ignore. It becomes the background noise of the supermarket, the elevator, and then our lives. The lyrics become embedded in our brains, like the refrain, but do we really 'listen' when we're too busy doing something else?

The notes are often distorted or muffled - not allowed to speak with the clarity in which they were composed.

I went to the opera recently. The sounds produced by the orchestra and the crystalline voices were like a revelation. They entered through the ear but then poured into the soul and opened up the heart like a daylily to the morning sun. Each note was clear, even when woven into a tapestry of sound. The words sung became infinitely more meaningful for their clarity until it wrung emotion from the body like water from a towel.

It is, for this exactly, that I do not listen to music when I write or when I paint. I listen to music. I sing and dance to music. I let it fill me up and then overflow until the house is awash with music. When I sit down to write or stand before my easel I need to listen to my voice, not the muse of another artist. I want my own pure thoughts and emotions. I need to listen to the wind blow, the honk of the car horn, the laughter of a child passing outside. I need the soundtrack of my art to be my own life.

Writing Just for the Fun of It

I read a lot of blogs these days about writing for profit whether as a freelancer, ghostwriter, author, or professional blogger, but I want to remember, today, that I write for the love of it. Of course making money at what you love to do is probably one of the most fantastic jobs on the planet and so all hail to that concept. My point, however, is that I can still play like a kid in a playground, by writing, and I never want to lose that.

When I log into my writing and role-play site every day I'm stepping into another world where the writing is for the sheer play of it. I can slip out of my everyday worries and cares, put aside that tired old hat, and don something a lot more colorful. Crafting a sentence to convey the thrill of old west gunfight or two starships in a firefight to my readers, knowing how they'll react and enjoy and then want their turn to respond and react, is a true pleasure. One of the greatest thrills of writing collaborative fiction, for me, is that interaction.

A couple of my friends are published authors. I know well the hard hours that they put into their work. Both of them work as much as they can, banging away at their laptop keyboards. CG works late, after his day job, alone in his room. PL works from the moment he opens his eyes on the day, and it's seldom that he's seen out of doors. For both they are in a very lonely profession. They seldom get feedback on their work until they are ready to submit it to the agent or editor. Even once the books are published they have to wait for book readings or the e-mails of fans to get any kind of response.

I'm not knocking the lonely life of the author. I would easily trade my day job for the chance to work at home at my own pace every day creating deathless prose, but I also think I actually enjoy writing than either of my published friends. Of course they are passionate about writing, but for them it's often a true "labor" of love. It's hard work and discipline. When I start to write it's pure play (even if I whine about "owing" posts). I get to playact some part and when I'm done, hit the post button; I get to socialize with my fellow writers who give me instant feedback.

PL, when I can get him to remember that life is fun too, actually comes to Pan Historia to write for simple play. I can get him to admit, at times, that he gets a kick out of it, even though he claims he does it just to be a good sport. I guess it's just a little like when he was a kid and he wrote his little stories in little handmade books he made. It was, of course, a bit challenging to get him to learn to play well with others after years of being the sole author and in control. I think he got the concept that you can't kill off someone else's character without their permission, but it took a while to wean him off of putting words in their mouths! He was far too used to having it all his own way with all of his own characters. Sadly I can't get CG to come and play. He says he just doesn't have time between the day job, writing at night, and having to do all his own PR these days. He says if he came to play he might have too much fun and forget to do the hard stuff!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Who Will I Be Today?

Who will I be today?

Will I be deputy U.S. marshal in Arizona looking to make a fortune speculating in silver while falling in love with the corrupt sheriff's girl?

Will I be a degenerate saloon keeper scheming how to make sure I stay top dog in a gold camp in Black Hills?

Will I be a scholarly professor pulled away from my classroom to head up a top secret security team of a top secret ancient society because I'm really a lycanthrope?

Will I be an Unseelie Prince, immortal and fae, that is determined to become King of all, human and fae, Seelie and Unseelie, Dark and Light, no matter the cost as I wage a war across the planet and in and out of dimensions?

Will I be an aging pop singer, suddenly thrust into a world he doesn't understand, trying to lead a motley band of survivors against a plague that turns people into mindless zombies?

Will I be an embittered and skeptical paranormal researcher and writer who finally finds himself in the most haunted building of his life, and soon will be fighting just for his sanity.*

This is actually a short-list of my characters that I write. I picked just one from each of my collaborative stories. I often throw in a villain to play off against if I'm writing the hero and vice-versa. Playing more than one character in the same story allows me to shift point of view very naturally from post to post and move the story forward in ways that I find more dramatic. Who will I be today? The answer is often all of the above as I move a block of the action into place to surprise and hopefully delight my fellow travelers in fiction.

*I swear this only has a passing similarity to the Stephen King short story 1408 which he published in 1999 which I have not read. The 2007 movie definitely came out well after I started writing my 666 West End Avenue tales of haunting horror with my co-writers.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Open Source Fiction

I use the term 'collaborative' fiction a lot because I'm trying to fix an idea and not wander around in vague terms that would confuse a reader not familiar with the activities of which I speak. My personal favorite used to be 'story play' which was coined by my son, then only twelve, and I thought it brilliant. Sadly it didn't catch on with the writers at Pan Historia and we continued to happily call ourselves role-players even as the world around us moved forward while we wrote our interactive stories with each other. We had evolved, many of us, from role-playing but the reality is that the majority of us just got caught on fire with the concept of writing together with like-minded people on a creative project that could span from a two person narrative to a sprawling novel of Ancient Egypt with the entire Court of the Pharaoh Ramesses or King Hatshepsut being represented right down the naked serving girl.

But just the other night I caught a blog post titled Open Source Art that sparked another term in my mind: open source fiction. Just like doing open source code we take a story and we bat it back and forth between us, each one adding our part, some of us more, some of us less, but even the smallest contribution adding to the whole until it is a unique entity almost independent of us. We get very little critical acclaim, if any, except within our unique community, and yet I believe there are some really good writers writing open source fiction. In fact I know for a fact we have had several published authors play around with the format and enjoy being able to take a traditionally solitary medium and make it social.

Reading deeper into Open Source Art the author discusses the medieval tradition of storytelling, for instance the King Arthur legend, and here I specifically reminded of fan fiction on the internet. There is really little difference between the imagination being fired up by a modern myth like Star Trek or Harry Potter and then, as a group of storytellers, adding your stories to the mix and passing them on. As the author of Open Source Art states what are different are the ideas of sole authorship and ownership.

I really appreciated reading Open Source Art and was glad to be able to rediscover and expound on the ideas as they related to my own favored art form. In many ways I know that I have harbored doubts about my involvement in an online writing community as frivolous or a waste of time over the years - and trust me have heard it from friends and colleagues as dismissive jibes - or as a repudiation of myself as a serious writer, but coming to terms with the very real revelation of collaborative writing as an art form of its own, a form of open source fiction is power and liberating.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Creative Play for Adults

You know once in a while it occurs to me that what I do for fun and a living (not talking the day job) could be seen as a little silly or frivolous - this probably in my moments of existential funk when I ponder the fact that we all seem to be going to hell in a hand basket in my lifetime.

But it only takes a quick consideration on my part to remember that I happen to believe that one should embrace life when one has it and if life is better, for me, because I spend a great deal of in imaginative play-acting then why not? We all of us have our passions - or we all of us should have some passion in life. Mine is not to climb the Himalayas or invent better scuba gear. Don't get me wrong: I would actually love to do all sorts of mad adventurous and important things, but that's the beauty of being a writer and even more the beauty of being a collaborative writer. I get to create a spread of different worlds, different lives, and try them all out. I get to be soldier, sailor, peace officer, badass evil elf, star fight, you name it. I can expand my mind in all sorts of directions trying on each role for size.

Each time I write I try to learn from the time before letting the words and my imagination take me all over time, the globe, and even beyond. Over the years my proficiency as a writer has grown. Only yesterday, for my collaborative online novel The Midnight People, one of my fellow writers paid me the incredible compliment of being touched by a line of description. I have cultivated a hobby that allows me to practice daily the craft of writing, and no longer in the seclusion that is the torment of many writers (though often the bliss of others).

And the interesting thing about this journey, albeit one taken from the safety of my desk chair, is that it has had a profound and significant positive effect on the me that types this - the me that has to head to work in an hour or so and deal with bosses and paperwork and workday challenges. By trying on different 'hats' I have been able, finally, to slip into the me that suits me best, the most comfortable, the easy-going, the "yeah, no problem, I can do it". I even know when to say "no" and not feel guilty.

It's also a beautiful thing to sit down and want to talk about something important like animal rights, or writing, and be able to do so with some ease. Young animals play to learn. Adults can benefit from it too.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ethical Meat Eating

Last night I randomly caught a tweet linking to chilling statistics on PETA, and then another kind friend sent me the link to Penn & Teller's Bullshit episode on PETA which I finished watching this morning.

My thoughts, however, started last night with the chilling statistic which is that PETA kills most of the animals it 'rescues'. I actually understand why shelters often have to put down animals, but what this says about PETA and their so-called ethics is that they are hypocrites, a fact that Penn & Teller amply showed. And fundamentally when an extremist group is also deeply hypocritical in its practices that mean its followers are seriously going to be misguided. Rapid animal liberationists frothing at the mouth are screwing up something that I seriously and devoutly believe in: the humane and ethical treatment of animals.

Fundamentally, and I might be at odds with Creationists here, I believe we, too, are animals. In fact it seems so self-evident I have a hard time understanding how anyone can deny it, but faith is faith. I have faith that I am an animal. I might be a highly evolved intelligent animal but I'm an ape, nonetheless. As an ape I'm adapted to eat an omnivore's diet which includes meat. I'm not even going into the science here. I find that science, like politics and faith, can be skewed to the POV of the observer, which is something that physics can explain for us.

Ok so I accept that great apes like the Homo sapiens eat meat. It's good for us. Our bodies are hardwired to it. I can also totally dig that some of us choose not to. That's fine. I have a friend who is a vegan and while I totally don't get her foodie choices it's not mine to make for her. Generally speaking it's only hypocrisy that gets me going with my friends who are vegetarians and vegans as in "I don't eat meat because it's cruel to animals but oops I seem to be wearing leather shoes". As for leather it's a by-product of meat and I'm of the school that if you're going to kill and eat a thing you better find good uses for the rest of it. Waste is both insulting and wasteful.

Back to PETA: they reveal terrible cruelties and inequities in the way that we treat animals; particularly in slaughterhouses were there is simply no excuse for it except for expediency and cheapness. It's really so simple I don't even know why it needs to be argued but animals are living creatures capable of emotion and some thought (check out your dog or cat as you read this and tell me you don't see what I mean) and thus they should be saved from as much pain, humiliation, and callous brutality as possible. However PETA's extremism puts off most reasonable middle-ground people and puts animal rights into the category of crackpots and even with PETA terrorists. The effect of this perception by ordinary people that might actually have an influence on factory farming practices is to make most people avoid even thinking about the consequences of cheap meat or how their cow was treated in their MacDonald's burger.

I've mentioned hypocrisy here a few times. What do I do to walk the walk? I eat less meat, and I eat kosher or certified humane when possible, or better yet I eat locally raised by a farmer I know. I know this is not possible for everyone, but we need to start demanding reform in agribusiness - just not the way bloody-handed PETA does.

For the record my thoughts and beliefs on ethical meat eating were shaped and tested by raising my own meat for seven years on a farm where I also butchered and dressed.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Looking in the Face of Want

I'm inspired to write something a little more personal here after my experience of handing over a donation check at our local homeless shelter and food bank.

I have never been particularly well off. Actually there have been times in my life when I was luck to make the rent, let alone have enough leftover to pay the electricity, phone, and then feed the brat. At those times I didn't have recourse, either, to calling a better off relative because it seems to have been the habit in my bohemian artsy fartsy 'we're so not establishment' family never to have any cash. Indeed members of my family have courted with financial success as artists only to somehow screw it all up either through self-destructive traits of "no not me, I'm not worthy" to "if I drink enough maybe I'll die young and leave a beautiful corpse".

All that aside though I feel, in essence, that my poverty and that of pretty much every one of my family members, is a lifestyle choice. It's not something circumstance thrust upon us or evil forces of economics randomly picked us out for (I'll leave out the tirade of the unfairness of a culture that doesn't reward certain types of artist for another time). I went to a top college. I could, if I choose, apply for well paying jobs. I have a graduate degree. As I hit the higher end of my thirties I gave up some of the Spartaness of my lifestyle choices and actually did get a job and one that gives me a reasonable level of security (no savings, but I have health and dental and life insurance). This kind of makes me a rebel in my family, but I feel it's worth bucking the system here if I can eat regular, drink decent wine, and keep warm in the winter. Plus I have had some money to indulge myself as an artist.

But what I looked at today when I looked into the faces of those people in the shelter was something quite different. It wasn't necessarily about choice. Of course there are people who screw up their lives royally and then sponge off the system, demanding their 'due' but that's not what I'm talking about. The sad thing about many of the people in our shelters is that they are suffering from a diversity of issues from lack of education, to being mentally or physically challenged, or because they suffer from mental illness. Their culture of poverty is etched deeply upon their faces from the dull eyes, dull hair, to the lack of a pretty gleaming set of dental appliances.

I can't decide whether we, as a society, have grown more or less enlightened over time. It seems such a travesty that people exist on the edge like that and yet - and yet, consider that in Ancient Rome or Medieval France they would be begging on the street. I suspect, in the case of these disenfranchised members of society, we have made little growth as a whole. The begging in this country is taken off the streets and hidden in shelters, but they still have to beg to get the money. Only in the case of places like I went today it is caring people that do the begging on behalf of the needy.

I don't have any answers today except one: more education. It's a long term goal but the least we could do is to give people the choices I had. I knew what opportunities were out there and I had the means and education to pursue them - if I had so chosen. With the most basic of skills how can people know that they have a choice? That's not even addressing the issues surrounding the mentally handicapped or mentally ill, but at least it would be a start.

If only "No Child Left Behind" actually meant what it said.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Blog on Blogging!

My friend Tank Girl (no not the real Tank Girl but the Pan Tank Girl but I think she's even cooler I assure you) thinks my blogs are interesting. I know this to be true because every thing I have belittled myself in front of her she has not fallen silent out of a polite refusal to validate what I say, but rather vehemently denies it and tells me she always reads my stuff.

For this fact, as well as many other endearing character traits, I must always love TG.

I do not come naturally to blogging, but like anything I put my mind to it is something I fully intend to learn and become proficient at - much like I managed to accomplish writing happy puffy promotional pieces for my marketing department at work (instead of blistering exposes of folks with seriously bad habits).

You, my sparse and probably Spartan readers, are my cute little guinea pigs. I'm testing my skills on you. Only by your comments and continued endurance can I get a hint of how well I'm doing. Feel free to burnish me with Brillo pads until I'm as shiny as stainless steel. I promise that no matter what I will improve… and I will keep at it.

Cue sinister Hammer movie's music and evil mastermind laugh…

Oh dear. I see I have been getting the ellipses get away from me again. Didn't I just read a blog reproving writers for that flaw? Seems I did…


Hey, on the bright side a school teacher told me I was a natural writer just yesterday. She ought to know!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Writing Unique People

What makes one character unique from another? It has to be more than job, looks, or slang in their speech. In order to really create a truly unique individual with a distinctive 'flavor' all their own you have to get down deep into the emotional heart of them. Too often I see writers make the error of just relying on an external description of their character to carry off personality but really what we look like physically is not predicated by character except in the minor detail. It's more likely to be found in the crow's feet, the way we style (or don't) style our hair, and how we wear our clothes.

I could probably write a whole thesis on the way people dress. There is tendency for those members of society who care about their appearance to suggest that people that are unkempt, dirty, or slobby don't care what people think of them. This couldn't be farther from the truth in most cases. The unkempt is just as much a 'fashion' statement as the well-groomed. Very often the individual is screaming out a political message or maybe just an antisocial "fuck you" at the world. Remember being a teenager and all you could think about was getting laid? There is no such thing as a complete lack of self-awareness in the average human being. Baggy unattractive clothes are often attempts to hide self-perceived flaws from the world: chubby, unfashionable proportions or breasts even.

Many writers will turn to describing 'flashing sparkling green eyes' or other such physical attributes common to romantic thinking, but more important than eye color is where the gaze falls. Do they meet your eyes when they look at you or do they glance away in shyness or discomfort? When we look at the human face there really is no such thing as twinkling eyes or a 'cold' look, yet the entire expression can seem to imply such, but there are a lot more choices out there too: weary, tired, haggard, bags under the eyes, dull eyes, dust on the eyelashes.

I am not suggesting, however, and this is important, that we clutter up our narrative with tons of description. Over describing your character leaves the reader with little to do and still doesn't reveal their true distinctiveness. Description should be used like seasoning - in moderation unless you're making curry. Throw in a comment about the stray few strands of hair in front of the eyes that annoy the observer and don't seem to bother the owner and you're giving us a little taste of that person's character and mood. Mannerisms or nervous ticks can be useful but, again, should not be overused and not everyone has one. We do all have a way of moving that is distinctive. Is your character jerky like a puppet on strings or do they move with the ease of a trained dancer?

I don't necessarily recommend the character sheet or the detailed character biography before you start writing, but if it works for you, by all means, use it as a tool. In my case I just try to imagine my character visually and then as I see the 'play' unfold I 'see' what they are doing and I try and capture the little quirks and visual clues. I like my character to surprise me with what they might do next so I don't care to pin them down with a character biography that is more than just a quick sketch. I can fill in the details as they come to life and they tell me who they are.

How a character performs tasks is much more telling then what they look like. Are they quick and sloppy, or quick and brilliant, slow but methodical, clumsy but inspired? Don't tell us, show us. Does Bobby Schwartz type with two fingers or did he somewhere learn to type? Does he punch the keys emphatically or do his fingers brush softly over the keys? Does he often use the backspace keys to correct his errors? Is he looking at the keyboard or does he stare fixed at the monitor? In the case of Bobby Schwartz, one of my characters, I know he spills a lot of stuff on his keyboard because he eats while programming, and that means he has a box of old sticky keyboards (he doesn't throw anything away) and a few new ones in boxes, or recycled ones stacked on his cluttered shelves so that he doesn't lose time working if the keys start to stick.

In the case of Bobby he is partially inspired by me, partially by programmers I have known, but also he's a mix of other people I have known. I also tend to eat and drink when I'm working at the computer but I have learned not to spill too much on the keyboard, I have a little brush for cleaning the dust bunnies out of it, and I never have a back up keyboard so disaster means I'll have to lose a couple of hours in all probability to go get another keyboard from the local Staples.

Monday, December 8, 2008

What's New Pussycat? The Hazards of Playing Tom Jones

It started out as a joke, partially inspired by his appearance in Mars Attacks and partially because of the whole grinding hip male crooner mystique, and because my mother always liked him. If you knew my mother you would know how amusing this is because she is not like other mothers and raised in the era of the Beatles she always considered it a guilty secret.

I'm talking about my role-playing collaborative writing that I do with the character of Welsh singer Tom Jones. What appealed to me was to take him and plonk him down somewhere else besides his natural milieu and so I thrust him first into a weird science fiction novel where people were ripped out of time and place to find themselves on an empty planet. It was a good opportunity for us all to take our characters and challenge them by removing them from their natural habitat. After a while I lost my direction in that novel (what we call a writing group at Pan Historia) and so I yanked poor Tom out of there and into an even more challenging setting: a zombie infested U.S. of A. While playing in Las Vegas the zombie plague hits and Tom is running for his life.

It's been great sport.

What is really challenging conceptually about the writing is not only that he is a real person (hence it requires a little research and I have to play his music just to get into the mood), but because as soon as people see his name and likeness they have preconceived notions of who he is and what he's going to be like.

In all fairness to the real Tom Jones I'm quite sure my bloke is nothing like him, no matter how much I research the sing song cadence of the Welsh accent, or check into his interviews on his interesting relationship with his wife. Of course being in a post-apocalyptic landscape does make it hard for him to do the things that he's best known for: singing and getting panties thrown at him.

That's where Clementine Proulx came in - his biggest fan, and one who miraculously survives zombies feasting on her mother by hiding in the pantry. The writer behind Clementine Proulx is phenomenally talented and I'm hoping to get her to guest on this blog.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Kick in the Ass - Collaborative Writing as Motivator

One of the biggest hurdles in writing and the history of wanting to be a writer, from the greats down to us little guys with the manuscript under the bed (or hiding on the hard drive) is the self-discipline it takes to write, and to write every day.

From when I first scrawled my florid and very lurid scifi fantasy when I was sixteen in little notebooks, and then on an old rickety typewriter with sticky keys to this very day my single biggest challenge it to find either the time or the motivation to write. Back in the days when I could squander time as if it were cheap oil I had no self-discipline, and frankly nothing to say that anyone needed to read, but gradually over the years I have accrued a little more depth but finding time and the discipline to sit down and put words to paper - sorry flat screen monitor - is still a challenge to the soul.

I have noticed a lot of motivational workshops, classes, tips, and even projects out there such as NaNoWriMo that are designed to help people get over one of the most single debilitating of handicaps on the writing life. My solution has been a little different.

Creating a role-playing and collaborative writing community was both a solution to the problem and an additional obstacle to the problem. Participating in my collaborative 'novels' requires me to write. There is no getting around the feeling of tension that builds from making people wait on your side of the story. I wish I could say that I eliminate that tension by getting my fingers tapping rapidly across the keyboard in a flurry of inspired madness, but it is often not so. There are so many other things to do: programming the site; programming a site for clients; going to work; helping my family out with their various projects; spending time with my loved ones; reading a good book (or even a bad one on occasion); blogging; socializing on the internet and getting distracted by the information highway overload.

However all those distraction aside, distractions that without Pan Historia I would allow to take me far away from writing fiction, I still manage to keep writing. Not everyday as I would like, but certainly regularly. There are deadlines and people to respond and react to what I write so that it is no longer a lonely business. Being able to entertain and delight my co-writers is a great motivator. And, of course, for those people that use the site regularly without the responsibility of programming and administering it, there are fewer distractions to holding up their end of the collaborative bargain. Over the years I really don't believe I would have developed as a writer without Pan Historia as my main obsession. I'm truly grateful for all the stories and all the people that have helped to keep me motivated and writing.

Now I better get over there and write a post for my cold-blooded werewolf terrorist…

It's too long overdue and I have people waiting.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Western Writing Sample from Pan Historia

It occurred to me that in an earlier post I gave you a link that has samples of my collaborative fiction writing set in Ancient Egypt but that I haven't shared anything yet of what I do in the Western genre. So without further ado here is a free sample of some writing of mine from Pan Historia. It is from the Tombstone novel and features my trademark Wyatt Earp from the day of the Gunfight at the OK Corral:

I watched the back of the sheriff as he moved off to 'deal' with the cow-boys that had been threatening our lives all morning. I think I heard a snort of derision from Doc, who was, I might add, in particularly fine fettle this afternoon - as if the danger was all he needed to feel in perfect health.

We stepped off the sidewalk as a group when we were accosted by concerned citizen after concerned citizen. First the cow-boys were at the Dexter Corral and then at the O.K. Corral. There were numerous first hand accounts coming at us in all directions of the threats against our lives. I had cause, in the days to come, to remember many of the names and faces and offers of assistance, and not in a pleasant way. Captain Murray, a stockbroker with a military past offered to gather a militia, a man by the name of Sills told us that the cow-boys had said they mean to kill us on sight.

We were not another ten paces down the street after declining help from left and right when a foreigner by the name of John L. Fonck came to see us. Fonck sells furniture in town but apparently had a far more colorful past - as a Chief Detective of the Los Angeles Police Department and an agent of the U.S. Secret Service. He tells us what he has heard of the threats and that he can quickly round up ten men.

"I swear to God, are these boys just going around finding everyone in town to issue this threat to?" exclaimed Virgil in exasperation.

It was getting a little tedious.

"Where are they now?"

"They are all down there on Fremont Street," said Fonck.

"Thank you, sir, but I think we can take care of things - as duly appointed officers of the law. We'll take it from here."

After Fonck made his retreat Virgil turned to me with distress in his face. I knew he didn't want to fight these men, and I knew he'd much rather be studying the racing form, but there really was nothing for it.

"Nothing to do but try and disarm them, and if they want a fight, make a fight."

"About time," said Doc, "I'll go along."

"This is our fight, Doc. There's no call for you to mix in."

"That's a hell of a thing for you to say to me, Wyatt."

I wasn't going to gainsay my friend if he wanted to back our play so I nodded. Virgil didn't argue either, which surprised me a little, but then he requested Doc's silver capped cane and handed Doc the shotgun.

"The sight of this thing could give folks the wrong idea. Put it under your coat, Doc, and now you're a deputy."

Reading this now I'm surprised it is as cohesive as it is. I wrote it under a lot of pressure on the actual anniversary of the gunfight. If I were to rewrite the thing today at my leisure there would be some changes. I worked quite closely with Virgil and Doc Holliday when I composed this piece, and each had done their research on the day so this was one of those occasions when the role play and collaboration went as rapidly as the shots fired that cold day in 1881.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Plotting Between Collaborative Writers

Or the plot goes on and on…

The traditional story will move from beginning to middle and finally to end but in the case of many or most collaborative fiction stories at Pan Historia the idea is never really to end. When it comes to the storyline I prefer to think of my stories more in the light of a serial or ongoing series. There may be story conclusions to individual stories but the characters need new challenges to crop up all the time.

This is where collaborative writing needs more than one head because, frankly, coming up with new plot ideas all the time to keep a train moving indefinitely into the future can be daunting. Some days you just don't have the inspiration and bouncing ideas off the other writing partners can be a great thing.

I tend to assume that most of the readers of my fiction are writers in the same story (though I have found with great pleasure, on occasion, that there are other readers who enjoy the stories) and so I always have a little line drawn in the sand - how much to reveal and how much to conceal so that they will still have the joy of surprise over plot twists. This is a true balancing act for me though I understand different writers resolve this in different ways.

There are two ways to deal with writing discussions - one through private messages between two writers and the other through forum or chat room discussions between groups of writers. My problem with the chat room is that if you need everyone there you might be lacking a window of opportunity while bulletin boards allow for everyone's unique time table. Generally I use the private messages over public discussions because of my desire to give everyone else the thrill of surprise, but eventually you will come to a place where everyone needs to be on board. However writers prefer to deal with plot discussions Pan Historia has the tools for it: forum boards available only to the group (novel as we say in Panspeak); chat room; or instant messaging onsite. With the recent re-enactment of the "Gunfight at the OK Corral" by my Tombstone writing group we used all of the available media. We posted widely on the forums in the weeks leading up to the writing event, then we instant messaged each other to work details between characters, and finally on the day we kept coordinated using the chat room.

Which leads me to an interesting aside: as far as I know most collaborative fiction sites are using models adapted for other kinds of interactive social media and Pan Historia is one of the few built specifically to cater to role-playing collaborative writers. I think once people try the site and get past the first "oh shit I don't know where to find anything or what does this button do" feelings they should find themselves in a complete environment catering almost exclusively to their interests.

Another important thing to remember when discussing plot with your fellow writers is to remember to listen and to be flexible. You might have something in mind and it becomes your 'darling' and you want to control that plot, but don't. You'll end up writing alone - which is fine if you're a novelist but kind of dull on in a collaborative situation. Also, and this has happened to me frequently, if you let someone else's ideas help to shape yours you might just find that the resulting story is even better than the one you originally imagined.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Laying Some Poetry On You : These Days I Would Be My Own Father

When I was a boy on that bike with

no training wheels

it was my dad that held the seat

until I could make it on my own

wobbling first into that old thorn bush

in Larkspur Canyon where the trees

still claim the road

and split the infinites

I had a nosebleed

he had let go too soon.

Dads come and go

and there more faces than

there are spokes on a wheel

there was that time he wore

another face it was in

Riverside Drive I made it all the

way down the bike path

before I knew he had let go

he said if a thing is worth doing

it is worth doing it right.

In a London flat he was the one that

hated to lose at games

and I had to let him

win or he would sulk

he’d get up before dawn

just to drink the cream off the top

of the milk

before I could pour my cereal

but he didn’t punish me for burning

the toast.

he was not the one

who’s name I would

not speak

nor kinship claim

nor admit caused me

one moment of lost sleep

though in nocturnal truths

I paused always in a hallway

just on the other side of the door

afraid to knock

while a party carried on.

These days I would be my own father