Monday, December 28, 2009

The Bones of a Leaf

The human mind is an amazing instrument capable of processing data from multiple inputs at speeds that make the fastest microprocessor look like a slow moving cement mixer. Not only that but many of the functions it performs are sorted and prioritized without the owner even seeing or sensing the processes involved. One of the astonishing abilities of the mind is the interpretation and creation of symbols: one thing standing for another thing. Letters form words that the brain then interprets. A picture of shape that is roundish, red, and has a sticklike appendage near the top becomes an apple. I catch sight of a piece of leaf with just the stem and a small part of the base and I see a tadpole swimming on my carpet.

Art, whether written, pictorial, or musical, is the mind's conscious manipulation of symbols to create images, emotion, and meaning in the mind of the observer/listener. I take something that is not there, create symbols (words or images), and deliver it to you so that you have an experience. Creating words from letters, then forming sentences, all of which describe the world, exterior and interior, is really an astounding activity and yet so many of us, from children to the most humble, can do it. Of course a lot of people tend to stick to the literal, the true, the tangible. It takes another flight of fancy to make stuff up - to make beautiful meaningful lies.

But even the entirely made up should be full of truths eternal. They may be very small, but I believe that even in the most lighthearted or humorous or fanciful piece of fiction writing there should be yet another layer of meaning underneath the obvious. I should be able to paint a picture for you of another reality and underlying my fictional reality is yet another substrate of meaning, of symbol. A really satisfying work of art lingers with you a long time after experiencing it. It's the movie that makes you keep thinking days later, or the novel that resonates years in the future so that you have to pick it up again, and lo and behold there is even more there than the first time around. It's the painting that haunts, or the musical refrain that moves you to tears and you don't know exactly why.

If I can ever write just one novel that has the ability to resonant in the reader's mind long after they put it down I'll have succeeded as an artist. If someone reads my words like I can read the remains of a leaf as a tadpole on my carpet then I have done my job.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Writing Goals for 2010

As we approach 2010 I have an opportunity to reflect on my goals. It's been a month since I wrote anything in my blog here - and what a busy month it's been. My last post here was about my new writing group hosted at my interactive fiction/collaborative writing & role-play site Pan Historia called Write Together. I'm here to report that even in the middle of switching jobs and surviving the crazy holidays it's been a great success for me so far. I re-committed myself to a writing regime and am currently twenty pages into a new novel. Not only have I written several chapters but I have been enjoying a great deal of inspiring research for the project. The novel is fiction, but it's set in a very specific time period (mostly 1926) with lots of exciting historical characters that need to be authentic to make the story work.

With the holidays over (I don't count New Years and intend to spend it sedately as always) I am recommitting myself to my blog as well. My New Year's resolution, if you will, is to complete my novel in 2010 but also to maintain a steady stream of collaborative fiction and blog posts. Now I just have to remember all the good ideas I have had over the past month that I have been too busy to realize. I have a far better note taking system with the audio and notebook functions on my Blackberry as well as a nice little pocket Moleskin notebook, but somehow I still have to get ideas from brain to my devices, whatever they may be. I've been pretty diligent when it comes to the new novel but less so when it comes to other ideas, including poetry ideas, I have been slacking. Developing new habits is a matter of practice however and with all the ways that I can take down my thoughts for later I have no excuses this year for not improving.

My new job is going to help a lot. I haven't really posted much personal stuff in my blog and that remains my intention, but I can share that when you are in a negative place, worried about finances and bullied by bosses that are less qualified than yourself, it sure can handicap your ability to be creative and productive in other spheres. My new job was a step back on the hierarchal ladder since my move across country, but it is a return to the sector that I excel in and where I have opportunities for advancement. My new bosses and coworkers all seem to be people I can respect, and I look forward to relaxing into my new position. My primary ambition in life is as an artist. Whether it is with paints, pens, or pixels, I have to remember that my job is not my career and sweat the small stuff a little less. I think 2010 promises me that freedom.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Write Together

I've been even more quiet than usual when it comes to my blog and twitter but I have an excellent excuse. I had a brainstorm of an idea - one that helps to make Pan Historia an even better destination for writers as well as one that is helping motivate me to write my own novel. I started a writing group at Pan for those of us who want to move from just writing ongoing collaborative fiction to finally finishing and publishing a novel of our own. This concept does not exclude collaborative projects (I hope to include a version of my zombie novel in this mix one day) but does focus on story structure, discipline, craft, and actually sitting down regularly and making time to write.

For those of you who know me or know me through my blog you'll be aware of my intention to write a novel and how I have been working on one based on the life of Wyatt Earp for just about forever. Mostly it's been in the endless research phase with a sort of Mobius strip of trying to work out my new 'fresh' angle on this particular subject. When I started the new writing group Write Together at Pan I fully intended to finally write and complete this work. Our group is really fortunate to have a published author of a sort of mentor consultant and the first thing she asked me is "why am I writing this particular story" and I could no longer answer the question. I got some good feedback from my fellow writers and had worked out some possible interesting twists on the Wyatt Earp story and how to tell it in an engaging way, but there was no real purpose for me. I ended up answering that question with "I've been researching it? I have a book case full of books on the topic?"

Beep. Not good enough.

So I decided to shelve the project and immediately begun work on another novel idea that had been flitting around my mind for a while. This time I jumped into a genre that I have come to love writing in: horror. I've started work on a sort of supernatural thriller set in the 1920's full of glamorous characters, many of whom are historical, and dark sinister magic. I'm very excited about the story and using all the resources of my novel writing group as well as the many great resources I have found since using twitter and blogging, I have already got a good working synopsis, a stable of interesting rich characters, and the beginning of an outline using a classic story structure. The basic storyline and characters has been something I have been working on for quite a long time on Pan as a collaborative novel, but my focus will be on my own ideas and characters and developing a plot that has not been told in the collaborative forum so it's all original.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Gratifying Our Inner Child

"Little Wyatt, if you want your another piece of your candy from Halloween, you have to clean your room first."

It's a common command. Children are taught to delay gratification from the bassinet and stroller and onward to school. Learning self-control and how to defer pleasure is essential to becoming an adult human being capable of making responsible decisions that enhance quality of life and ensure survival. Some of our oldest fables and folk stories demonstrate the same principle from the hard plodding tortoise that knows he cannot rest until the job is done and thus beats the hare at a race, to the three little pigs where the one that knows to do the hard work and build his house out of brick doesn't end up pork tenderloin for a hungry wolf. Of course it's hardly kosher these days to scare children with stories of pigs being eaten by wolves is it? And how does Little Red Riding Hood fare?

In fact not only are we less likely to tell children cautionary tales of what happens to the selfish, lazy, greedy, and irresponsible, we, collectively as parents, are less likely to teach our children to be anything but greedy, selfish, lazy, and irresponsible anymore. Out the window went spankings and consequences, and while I'm happy to find an alternative to physical violence as a parental disciplinary option if you can show me a better happier way, I'm terribly loath to go the way I have seen this nation tumble towards. Television sets are baby sitters that teach mass consumption. Lack of public approval for discipling children has either led to screaming harpies that don't care how they are perceived in public or the greater majority of well-meaning parents that hand that children whatever it is they are crying for as soon as they are crying, just to stop the socially embarrassing moment of a child making a scene in public.

Rewards are handed out as incentives for self-expression rather than self-discipline and we're all lauding the freedom we experience as our entire nation, as in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald, grows ever younger and more immature. Our entire financial institution is now centered around the principle of enjoy now, pay later (or at least have someone else bail you out). Don't defer. Get a credit card. Credit cards getting a bad rap? Well now you can use layaway at some of the major stores just to be sure you can get what you want now and worry about the consequences later. No matter than you're now paying much more for it than you should be because all the added interest and fees. Can anyone remember far back into the dark ages when you know, if you had no money in your account, your card wouldn't let you have any, or wow, your check would bounce? Now instead it lets you go on blithely spending and slams you with fees later - because, of course, you gotta have it now. We have all sunk deep and deeper into a quicksand of instant gratification.

Of course it would be easy to say: don't use credit, save, only buy what you can afford - except that the whole crazy system of instant gratification has had the domino effect of creating massive inflation (yes, I know there are complex issues and myriad causes, but it is one of those causes). How many years would it take to save for a house, when of course when we are young and raising a family is exactly when we need one? Rising health care costs and the wonderful fraud of insurance of course accounts for huge chunk of change making it impossible to get what we need without credit.

Every where you choose to cast your eye in regards to our culture the cult of childish instant gratification has left its indelible print of banality, self-centeredness, and immaturity: music, art, relationships, media, and our economy. Is there a way, I wonder, to reverse that trend or are we doomed like Benjamin Button to fade into black unable to remember our own name?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Retrieving the Wonder of Childlike Eyes


I recently watched a couple of young boys, probably around seven or eight, explore an area of a garden center unsupervised, and I suspect they also thought themselves alone. I was amused to observe them get excited over some plant specimens (succulents of course, weird and wonderful) as well as become totally distracted and unhinged at the sight of some bug. I smiled to myself as I remembered my same joy of discovery at the amazing world around me, and the same lack of discrimination as to what was worthy of notice and what wasn't. It was not an unusual thought that came to my mind: how sad is the loss of the wonder of youth. My next thought was a congratulatory one: I'm so glad I haven't lost my wonder. Only a few minutes later I was proving this point by collecting up some unusual pine cones that looked like old-fashioned cabbage roses and some spiky and strange seed pods, all the while wondering how I could use them in some creative way. I often stop to watch the humming bird feed, or to touch an interesting plant with an unusual texture or scent. While dead heading the cyclamen the other day I snipped a seed pod in half to see what it looked like inside, curious because I had never observed their fruit before.

Of course my musings on the wonder of youth led me to reflect that creative people always seem to retain some of that childlike amazement and curiosity at the world around us. I started to pat myself on the back, but then I had another thought: perhaps it's not some innate specialness that allows us to retain our senses when others become smoothed to the world around them, like over-used sandpaper. Observe adults with children and you'll see the smoothing away process in action often. For every parent that is encouraging their offspring in their explorations there are at least two others teaching their children fear and/or indifference. To be honest most parents belong in both categories. We tell our children what is important to pay attention to all the time with every little caution and gesture.

"Dad, what is this pretty flower?"

"I don't know, it's just a flower, now do up your shoelaces."

"Mom, I like this squishy slug."

"Ugh! Put that down, it's dirty."

Or better yet - just ignoring all the observations, questions, and wonder - or even better yet - criticizing, mocking, or laughing at the child for their pleasure at life's wonders.

One of my personal favorites is misinformation. The largest dissemination of crap information is from parents to their children. It can be minor as in identifying an ape as a monkey, or it can be major as in stating that all people of a certain colored skin or sexual preference are inferior.

Of course I once failed to correct a couple of little boys as they made some wild assumptions: they were identifying some marks on the side of a ship docked in a harbor as being the result of 'shark bites'. I loved that. That was not misinformation but a sign of the wonderful imagination that all human beings are born with. Seeing some places where the paint was missing from the hull down at the water line their young minds, still not trained to ignore or classify as uninteresting or useless, imagined huge Great Whites with gaping jaws full of sharp and horrifying teeth as the fish leapt up out of the water in a feeding frenzy.

Perhaps if you have found yourself rubbed too smooth to wonder at life any longer, too harried to pass on your own wonder to your kids? I present no answers here, but I hope to have fueled some thought that might lead you down a path of rediscovery, and maybe what you find there, on that yellow brick road, might rub off on your little ones.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Multidimensional Writing Experience

There is a lovely multidimensionality in starting up a new character for a collaborative writing/role play project at Pan Historia that feeds all my creative urges at once, nearly. There are two main roads into a new character: getting an idea for a character and then finding a place for them to dwell; or finding a story you really like and then finding a character to fit in. Creating a new character from scratch is the most creatively demanding because of the added dimensions of home page design. I love kitting out a new page for a new character from finding the right graphics, or creating them from scratch if one has a bit of tech savvy with a graphics program, and then designing a fun informative home page from all the different components.

Home pages are useful. I think of them as character biographies where you can get your decorating urges taken care of and impart something useful about your character in turn. My Wyatt Earp home is both western in theme and includes useful historical quotes about Wyatt from people that actually knew him. My Gabriel Oak home is less about the personality of the character but is very informative about some of my inspiration for the character. Gabriel is an interesting character inspired both from literature and from the movies. Those familiar with Thomas Hardy will recognize the source of the character's name, and of course the face I use is from the movie version of the novel "Far From the Maddening Crowd". I'm not a fanboy however and Gabe is his own character. In one earlier incarnation he was an artist with a supernatural angelic side living inside him. When he moved on to a different story he became a drunk, the human mask, of the Archangel Gabriel.

Of course some characters live in many different role play and collaborative stories and one home page can hardly do justice to all their diverse lives. That's why the profile pages were originally added as a 'room' off the main home page. These pages include sections for each novel that a character appears in so that the owner can give a little biographical detail. The beauty of a site like Pan, though, is that with so many interactive features the creativity of the individual takes over and tools are always adapted to the needs of their owners. I don't try and force people to use Pan the way I anticipated. Instead I'm often adapting Pan to fit in with the needs of the users.

A lot of people reserve their character biographies for the forums of the novels themselves and use the home pages as a place to show off all their awards, prizes, badges, and the little graphical gifts that people make for one another. This is probably a similar approach that many users of MySpace employ, but it's fun nonetheless. Of course it doesn't really help me, as a writer, when I click on their home to see more about their character, but usually I can at least some kind of sense from the avatar they have chosen to represent their character. Other people actually write out character sheets. I have never employed one of those. I like to get a general impression, and then let inspiration take its course when I'm writing. If I get too locked down on who I think a character is I find that the work become stifled and creativity shuts down.

I guess I can sum up what I'm trying to say is that using the internet and a web site like Pan Historia allows me and my fellow writers to add layers and dimensions to our writing experience, like creating images and home pages to enhance the experience. The way that any particular writer or role player chooses to implement these tools is often going to be as unique and different as the perspectives we bring to our writing and characters.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My Top Eleven Romantic Heroines of Literature

1. Tess Durbeyfield - Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, 1891
2. Sarah Woodruff - The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles, 1969 (but inspired by an 1823 novel)
3. Catherine Earnshaw - Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, 1847
4. Elizabeth Bennett - Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, 1813
5. Anne Elliot - Persuasion by Jane Austen, 1816
6. Scarlet O'Hara - Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, 1937
7. Sophie Zawistowska - Sophie's Choice by William Styron, 1979
8. The Marquise de Merteuil - Les Liasons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, 1782
9. Countess Ellen Olenska - The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, 1920
10. Roxane - Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, 1897
11. Jane Eyre - Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, 1847

Not included on my list but available for discussion: Anna Karenina - Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, 1877

These are my top eleven (today anyway) favorite romantic but flawed heroines of literature. You might have others that don't appear on my list, but I had a couple of binding rules for including characters on my list:

1. I had to have actually read the book, not just seen the movie or BBC adaptation.
2. They had to be smart and not just victims or ciphers for the male character to show off to.
3. I had to find them sexy.

Curiously this set of rules nearly knocked Jane Eyre off the list. Much as I admire her spunk and passion, she never set my pulse racing, but on deep consideration she's too well written of a heroine not to include. Tess might be on the list for the opposite reason - she's hot, but I'm not sure she's not more of a victim than not. Of course considering the time periods all of these heroines had to live in it's not at all surprising that their lives are often tragic, and that fate deals them hands that no one could raise above, no matter their inner steel.

Taking my heroines one by one I will give a brief explanation for their inclusion on my all time favorites list; however please bear in mind there is no particular order to the list. Tess is there because of her struggle. Viewed through the eyes of the men around her we see her vulnerability and desirability, and yet... she's so badly treated by them all. She keeps getting kicked down, getting back up, and getting kicked back down again. Sarah Woodruff, on the surface seems a similar sort. Her mystery makes her desirable and then Fowles plays with us by giving us all possible versions of her, and yet not revealing which is the true Sarah. Cathy Earnshaw is elemental in her passion. Who wouldn't fall for a woman that death couldn't even hold down? Elizabeth Bennett is one smart cookie, but prone to understandable blindness. Her beauty lies in her essential goodness and her ability to learn, grow, and her loyalty to those she loves.

Anne Elliot is a more gentle heroine, trapped by social mores, she retains dignity. In the end she wins deserved love and redemption. Scarlet O'Hara is maddening. She's beautiful, passionate, and fiery. She's strong-willed, an idiot, and irritating as hell. Who hasn't fallen for such a woman? Sophie from Sophie's Choice is so beautiful and tragic, she makes my heart bleed. I suppose in the literal sense The Marquise de Merteuil is not a heroine. She is spiteful and scheming, and yet I feel that she is such a woman of passion and intelligence she deserves her place here. She is merely having her revenge for the status her gender demands. She uses her wit like poison, and in the end it is she that suffers.

The Age of Innocence is the one book on this list I did not read until the end, but not because it wasn't worth reading. I had seen the movie first, and then intrigued picked up the novel. It was great, but for me the repressed and thwarted passion of Ellen Olenska was more than I could bear a second time. I wanted her to win against society, when no winning was possible in that time period. I think Roxane is an overlooked heroine. Everyone focuses on Cyrano, and with good reason, but Roxane is the lovely woman with the understanding to adore beautiful words, and in the end she would have loved Cyrano as well or better than Christian, if she'd been given the opportunity. Jane Eyre... everyone knows her: mousy governess with a wild heart capable of great and passionate love. It's the dark eyes, luminous in a pale face, that does it.

Anna Karenina is not on the list because I hated that book. The story of Anna was powerful and provocative, but cut with a very boring second story about some landowner and his wheat crops. I have no idea this far removed his name or why he was there, but I didn't finish the book and it pissed me off. I did, however, read the incredibly lengthy War and Peace, so it's not big wordy Russian novels by Tolstoy that put me off.

Which brings up another question I have about my own list. Why are all the books so old or even if written in this century set in an earlier age? Where are the modern heroines to make my blood boil and my heart strings sing? I don't know if I have the complete answer to that question. I know that I read a great many classics in my teens and twenties - exactly at the time when the hormones were raging the most - so it's entirely possible that my concept of what was romantic was crystallized by my reading habits. I also know that I don't often read modern fiction, and when I do I don't find a lot of romantic writing there. I won't pick a 'romance' because they are often, for me, of very limited scope and reading quality as genre fiction. Has a good modern romance been written? If so please tell me about them so I can expand my horizons. Also feel free to post your own list in my comment box. I want to hear more about it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sex & Romance: Let's Write It!

Romance. We all love it, even those of us that suggest otherwise. Sex. Ditto there, folks. But is there any deeper quagmire that a writer can sink in? I'm talking about experienced authors as well as first time writers. It's a morass. How do you write about sex and romance, either together or separately, without coming off like something from Penthouse magazine or worse just plan repetitive, dull, or clichéd? The topic is so sticky with cliché and innuendo that often people don't even recognize when something is clichéd. They're programmed to either go 'ahhhhhh' or blush, or sneer, or mock, or even giggle inanely.

For a writer, if we are writing some pure romance, or want to create a great sex scene that warms the... heart then we certainly don't want to cause our readers to put the scene down with a humph, a yawn, or a ridiculing laugh. If that scene is part of a greater whole than we sure don't want our readers to rush through uncomfortably, knowing that they won't miss anything of great import. Sex, like any other human activity, needs a reason to be in the story. If you're writing a romantic novel where boy meets girl, or girl meets girl, the sex is part and parcel of the narrative. No need to agonize whether or not to include it. The only question that needs to be in your mind is "how spicy, how explicit". In this case that judgment call is more about your audience. Some readers like their sex soft, romantic, vanilla, and veiled in pretty words, and that's just fine for that kind of novel. This blog isn't about that kind of writing.

Sex, just like romance, can be rude, quirky, dirty, sloppy, hurried, insane, intense, funny, and clumsy - and it happens for a reason. In our fiction writing it happens to reveal something about the character, or lead the characters where they need to go. These are all elements that once included make the reader associate more intensely with your characters and not reject the sex as gratuitous fluff. When it comes to awkward moments we've all been there and done that - and good sex is like good wine: it can combine flavors that seem madly disparate like blackberries and charcoal. The trick is knowing what is sexy and what is not out of those elements. If you're looking to turn up the heat you can be inventive and silly, but you have to know when any particular element is gross or makes your hero look like an unattractive ass. My trick is to imagine the scene completely: would I be turned on or off if a particular thing happened during sex?

Falling off the bed during the intensity of love-making can either be funny, tragic, or sexy. It will depend on the telling. Accidentally farting will always end the heat, even if the laughter kicks in (in real life you might get over it, but I can practically guarantee your reader won't). It's like overflowing trash in your kitchen when you're cooking. It spoils the appetite. It's important to keep it real, and yet, for the heat, you have to keep it from getting too real. It's always got to be a little bit of the best sex you ever had, and not necessarily just the best sex you ever imagined.

Truly great love affairs are never easy. They're not about candy, Hallmark greeting cards, soft focus, or soft love-making from incredibly virile men with a sardonic smirk and a searing kiss, who knows when the heroine (who is unbelievably lovely, spunky but submissive in bed) says "no, no" she means "yes, yes". Truly great sex is often memorable for the details. Where you were, what you were doing before hand, how you felt at the time, and that warm laugh you shared when you broke your coffee mug as you swept it off your desk in the heat of passion. It's that wonderful little bit in When Harry Met Sally when she fakes an orgasm in the deli, or Bridget Jones's Diary where Hugh Grant strips off the cute little cocktail dress only to find granny panties. Or it's that bit that makes you want to crawl out of your skin in The Age of Innocence where the passion of the main characters, so repressed by the societal mores of their day, is entirely expressed by Newland Archer removing the glove from Ellen Olenska's hand during a carriage ride and pressing her fingers to his lips.

So let's talk language for a second. I'm a fan of no beating around the proverbial bush. I find words like 'member', 'tool', and other such euphemisms amusing so they spoil the moment for me. Those that don't like their sex written so explicitly will, violently on occasion, disagree with me. If you have to use euphemisms be cautious with them, and choose the words with great care so that you're not accidentally inspiring laughter instead of sympathetic passion. You might be sparing your less sensitive readers much blushing but instead causing your more bold readers to laughter or worse, to feel boredom. Telling a sexy story need very rarely ever go right to the finish either. This is not porn we're talking about. The 'money shot' is seldom really called for in any scene. An orgasm is only an orgasm in real life. In fiction it's the lead up that counts. Make me squirm and shudder. Take me to the brink and I'll fall over the edge all by myself with the aid of my own imaginative juices.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Progress on the Pan Historia Birthday Book

Work has commenced, as promised on the second Pan Historiapanphoenix-72dpi Birthday Book. The title needs a little explaining. Pan Historia is a community for collaborative and role-play writing, as well as history buffs, and a place for people with a whimsical or literary sense of fun to hang out and make friends. It's like a non-stop costume party (which is why October is such a popular month with our members and writers). We first went live around May 2000 and were in beta forever (it seemed at the time) due to a some what rocky start and no capital investment. Our first collection of work by our writers and artists was prepared and published in time for our 3rd Panniversary (yes, we do awful plays on words at Pan) - which is held every February because our official launch date was Valentine's Day, 2001. I think. Record keeping is not my strong suit. I forget my own name sometimes as well.

Hence the anthology was named "The Pan Historia Birthday Book" with every intention of creating a new collection each and every February. This turned out to be a laughably ambitious concept. Shortly after the publication of the first book we had a major server crash that ripped the site apart, and it took many months of hard work to re-establish trust and fun as usual. I cannot stress how amazing our members were throughout that whole ordeal. Our second effort which was to be a cookbook: it died before delivery. After that it just seemed like the idea was to be shoved to the back burner every year.

This time, however, determination has returned, and the small press world has radically altered. Back in 2004 I had to order several boxes of books, and we never did sell every copy. This time print on demand has developed to the degree that I don't have to take that kind of risk again. By affiliating myself with another small press I'm planning to open the work of our talented writers and artists to a wider audience and have the book available on Amazon. It should be exciting to see how our labor of love and fun does in the 'real' world. I have pushed the publication date to prior to December in order to take advantage of Christmas sales, but I might be too ambitious. There is a lot of work still to be done.

The deadline for entries to be included in the book closes tomorrow. After that we'll be judging the entries so that we have the best and the book isn't the size of Lord of the Rings. Following that is the process of editing. Thankfully we have a number of people qualified to edit who are members of the site. All in all this is a terrific project with great potential, and I can't think of many other writing sites that give their members an opportunity to be published.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why I Blog Less So I Can Write More

I have noticed that my blog postings are getting fewer and farther between - even the 'easy' ones where I repost already written fiction from my collaborative writing community. It's pretty hard to maintain a good blog. Anyone that says "you need a blog" is making a suggestion that has merit, but also entails a whole butt load of work. There is the essential component of having a good idea that hasn't been covered to death, then finding something to say abut that idea that hasn't been said five billion other times in the exact same way, and then the craft of writing the piece. Once you've done that you have to do it all over again, maybe not immediately, but certainly within a timely fashion; say, once every couple of days.

For some people that process can take days right there. And if you're an expert on something, or even just trying to be informative and give people value for their click, there is all the research that many topics entail. Oh - and you have to do all the links, the attributions, the editing, the keywords, and maybe even a nice little summary. Of course you're trying to stand out too so you'll grab hold of some images to pepper your writing with and catch the wandering eye and short attention span of your target audience. You need to promote your blog, post the link on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and perhaps Digg It, or Technorati it, and at the end of the day, after you've checked all your stats to see your traffic a whole fifteen people might have checked you out.

And if you're like me and you're hoping that your blog will alert people to the fun of your true love and get them curious and you find that you're not driving any traffic there, you gotta start wondering: is it worth all this damn trouble? You have to start asking yourself "why do I blog?". If the answer is "to advertise" than maybe it's just not all that useful after all. The standard advice for writers and other professionals is that you have to self-promote, self-promote, self-promote, but is that incredible cacophony of sound that is the world-wide-web really doing anyone any good?

On Twitter, which I actually enjoy for more than it's potential to advertise my wares, the majority of people that follow me are bots looking to advertise products. All the 'in the know' blogs by the 'smart people' tell you not to be a bot, but give value, but even those value-laden pundits can become overwhelming and tedious. Link after link is advertised sending you off to sites that tell you how to market, how to create great ads in Photoshop, how to sell, how to write, how to yell louder than anyone else, and it's all just becoming noise, noise, noise. And we all know what happens next: we drown it out. We tune it out, we drop out, we find a secluded beach somewhere.

The only things that really give value in this life are the things you're passionate about. I'm passionate about Pan Historia. I'm passionate about gardening, writing, reading good books, good games, good food, art, the people I love, and so if I don't have the passion to tell you something interesting on this blog - I'm not going to waste my time and yours by making sure I post every few days to keep my blog on the top of the list.

Monday, August 31, 2009

It Takes a Village to Create a Good Monster

Beguiling Serial Killer Dexter, image property of Showtime

Most of my adult life I have not signed up for cable TV. It's been a time sucking temptation I didn't need or want. But that's not because I'm some kind of stuck up puritan deeming the viewing of comedies and dramas on the small screen as sinful or wasteful. I just know myself - I love the distraction of a tale well told or a meal well cooked. In consequence my viewing of popular series has been as a customer of Netflix. I tell you this to explain the next part: I watch TV series after everyone else as seen them because I watch them on DVD.

I'm a big fan of the hit Showtime series Dexter and gobbled up Season 1 & 2 with avidity of appetite that left me with a very long wait for Season 3. I had to fill that time somehow. Dexter, serial killer with a code, is such an engaging and fascinating character that when I discovered that he was actually inspired by a book I was delighted. I'm one of those who love to read and believe that most books are better than the shows/movies made from them. I understand that it's hard work to adapt a book to a totally different medium and realize that the result often diverges enough from the original that the reader is left unsatisfied: their imaginative take on the events and characters far different than the script writer and director's. So to say that I was excited to find that Jeffrey Lindsay was the creator of one of my favorite television character was possibly an understatement. These were not books based on the hit series, but a hit series based on popular books, bound to be as good at the show if not better. I must be in for a treat so I bought all three extant books at once.

Here is where I'm going to offend Jeffrey Lindsay and all his fans. These were definitely the worst three books I have ever read as a series. I confess that I hated the first trilogy of Thomas Covenant by Stephan R. Donaldson nearly as much but for very different reasons, but in main if I have bothered to read three books by the same author about the same subject I'm probably hooked. I was not hooked; I was desperate. I wanted to be in Dexter's world and this was the best I could do while I waited for the series to return (thankfully they were both short and easy to read). Lindsay created an engaging character, a bold premise, and a convincing setup, and for that I will always be grateful. But after that he let me down with pedestrian writing and cheap tricks.

One huge mistake: his sister Debra finds out he's a killer in the beginning of the first book, but she loves him anyway in the second book. Where is the alienation that so defines the character? Doakes gets all his limbs cut off but clumps into the office anyway? Was that mean to be humorous? And the third book... I'm rolling my eyes at this one. In the third book Lindsay blows away his own brilliant premise by making Dexter possessed of a demon, rather than the interesting psychology that is hinted at (not actually explored because Lindsay is not that good of a writer) in the previous novels. The device of Dexter's inner monologue has its source in the books, but whereas it is very interesting and well done in the TV series, after three books you're tired of the boasting and whining:

"Gosh I'm a smart guy without any human emotions, why can't I do my normal brilliant analysis of this challenge right now?"

That was a paraphrase because I can't access the books anymore. Disgusted that I read all three I passed them onto another Dexter fan - who then did precisely what I did - read them all in disgust and then dumped them off somewhere like a dead body that needed disposal. I have googled around the web for evidence that others viewed Lindsay's hack writing the same way as I did, but I have not found it. I believe that Dexter is so arresting as a character in fiction that Lindsay is easily pulling the wool over the eyes of his readers, but the glamour can't last forever.

What is the point of trashing Lindsay's books in my blog since this is not intended as a review? I think, for me, that it's that the collaborative effort that took flight from Lindsay's brilliant starting point shows that the artistic process, even for crafting stories, doesn't have to be a lonely journey. We all know that movies and TV shows are the result of the work of a lot of people, but we always think of them in terms of a 'a writer', 'a director', or 'a star', but the fact is that all those people and more work together to produce a show like Dexter. Every link in the Dexter chain, from Lindsay's premise, to the uncanny performance by Michael C. Hall, is part of a greater whole of people coming together to create something unique in the world. At least that's how I like to think of it when I collaborate on my fiction projects - that we are bringing something unique into the world through our collective creativity and vision. Lindsay conceived Dexter, but it took 'a village' to raise this monster.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Reading to Be Write

Reading is to writing like water is to a fish. A couple years ago I realized that, somewhere around my middle thirties, all my reading had metamorphosed from fiction and poetry to research and essays. I was reading thick tomes on Ancient Egypt and the Wild West with a collector's avidity and little focus on the writing. The irony is that my abandonment of reading fiction coincided with my eager beavering at writing fiction. I was reading to learn about the places and periods that inspired me to write.

It took me a while to realize that I was no longer in touch with the storytellers that had created a love of literature in me in the first place. A couple years back I pledged to make the time to read novels and short stories again. I decided that as a writer I need to breathe in and absorb the work of other artists; not to mimic them but to learn from and be inspired by them.

As a kid I totally absorbed the classics and many of the great writers of the last couple of centuries from Dostoevsky, to Dickens, to Hardy. I read Lord of the Rings about ten times (yes I was that geeky child) before the age of sixteen. As an adult I have had far more difficulty getting into novels. I'm still looking for good writing but I also need good stories and a lot of modern novelists of the literary variety leave me cold - yes, I'm that kind of luddite. I still believe in story and plot. It's all style and in the head when I want something to actually happen. So from the classics of my youth I have been reading more along the lines of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard.

Much as I admire King's storytelling ability and craftsmanship (and have tried to absorb the lessons in writing that he can deftly apply) he can be lacking in the sheer beauty of words. Elmore Leonard is the king of 'spare' dry bones fiction and I'm finding that isn't what I want either. It's highly praised by editors and other writers at this moment in time, but I consider it just one style and just one possibility and not necessarily the pinnacle of literary mastery. I recently read No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and it was excellent - the writing both hard edged and lyrical at the same time. McCarthy is an author that inspires me to be a better writer, and to pick up more of his books.

The key to reading fiction in order to learn to write better yourself is to read more thoughtfully. It doesn't mean you have to lose the rhythm of the story. It's more akin to enjoying fine wine. You just don't pour it into a jelly jar and gulp it down; you breathe in the aroma, sifting through the myriad scents, sip, roll it over your tongue, and then drink that baby all up. Feel free to mark passages that strike you. Query word choices that pull you up short and take you out of the story. Go back and read excellent bits again.

You should even feel free to mimic as a writing exercise, just remembering that all this reading and even mimicry is just a passage to finding your own style and rhythm.

So which writers inspire you? I would love to hear back from you all - so that I can find other gems and continue on my literary journey of discovery.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Slugs and Snails

The other day I was out in the garden, cleaning up the dead leaves, making nature look sexy instead of messy, when I came across some garden slugs. Ugh. Slugs.

slugI hate slugs; even their name is repellent. They're slimy little squishy eating machines: gross miniature monsters eating holes in the beautiful leaves of my imagined perfect garden. Though I hate to touch them I had no qualms about crushing them under the heel of my boot to rid the garden of their pestilence. A few minutes later I came across the common garden snail (escargot to you) and my reaction was quite different. It's still a garden pest and eating machine but instead of active repugnance I pick it carefully up by its stripped tortoiseshell-like spiral home where it brings a smile to my face as it starts to uncurl its little noble head from its body to peer at me inquisitively from its extraordinary eyestalks.

snailI couldn't crush it: I carefully carried it out of the garden. I never have been able to harm a snail. They're slippery, not slimy. They have beautiful shells. They have an elegance when fully extended, a sort of equine grace to their heads and the arch of their body as they navigate their world with a slow steady curiosity. I'm sure many of these are imagined qualities in my head, but my love affair with snails has been going since I was a kid when I would collect them to keep as pets, and carefully release them before I had them too long.

The same kid that showed such gentle devotion to his snails once stuck a match stick in the air hole of a slug, lit it, and watched it burn down until it melted the slug in a searing sizzle of outraged twisting writhing slugginess. I'm not proud of that moment and it didn't give me any fiendish pleasure but rather taught me not to torture animals - even ones I despise.

nudibranchThe irony of all of this is that slugs, to most people, are snails without shells. In the mind of most people they are quite similar, if not nearly exactly the same, and the slime of the slug is the slime of the snail. Each has the same disastrous effect in the garden as they munch their way across your favorite shrub, veggies, and flowers. Even biology bears out the opinions of most people: they are both gastropods that got out of the sea and crawled on the land. Slugs developed mucus to protect their soft bodies designed for aquatic living and snails have a shell, like many of their relatives. Sea slugs are some of the most beautiful creatures on earth, nudibranchs, and even some land slug species are quite extraordinary.

The fact is I'm prejudiced. Like most prejudiced people my reasons seem perfectly reasonable: slime, squishy, plant-eating. And just like most prejudices I can't see what I don't want to see like the fact that the snail is the same creature but with a shell. My prejudice is so ingrained it's visceral, but with open eyes can I cease my ridiculousness? I don't mean that I should cease to remove slugs from my garden or that I should love snails any less, but that I should simply stop hating the simple slug, humble relative of creatures like nudibranchs and snails, and give it the respect it's due. It's the respect that all living creatures deserve just for being what they were born to be. It's not layering my hatreds and fears on their backs until I can't see them anymore, but stripping away the layers to see that they are just trying to make a living the best way that they can.

What prejudices do you hold so close you can't even see them anymore?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Writing the Good Guy: Give Them Black Hats

A casual exchange in #writechat, Twitter's Sunday writing discussion, led me to think a little bit more about writing the good guy in fiction. I stated that I found writing a hero more challenging than writing about the villain. Villains are fun. They are people I don't need to make likeable, honorable, or virtuous, and yet we are all a little predisposed to get a vicarious thrill out of that bad boy doing what we wish we could. The hero might have flaws, even fatal flaws (one that leads to her demise), but we still need to be relating to her and rooting for her.

A good writer friend of mine at Pan says: "People adore Dexter. He's a serial killer. How can you like him or hope he doesn't get caught? Because he fights his insights and sticks to his code." Dexter is a good example of the hero role turned upside down, or an anti-hero because even though he seems to be a prime example of a bad guy, he has an unshakeable code of conduct.

But what about a good old-fashioned hero?

Clementine Proulx (a nom de plume of one of our excellent Pan Historia writers who is also a published author in the real world) advises: "Readers have to care about your "hero." She doesn't have to be lovable or even likable, but she has to have something that makes them want to invest in her."

I write the historical character of Wyatt Earp. I use the historical record to provide him with the flaws needed to make him a believable human being and not a TV show stereotype. The controversy surrounded Earp supplies me with plenty of ways to show that my hero is not just a nice guy. He was a gambler who consorted with prostitutes, but he was also a fearless lawman who was prepared to crack a few heads along the way. He even arrested a judge. His brother Virgil arrested Wyatt once. That kind of single-minded adherence to duty is both honorable and a flaw. Rigidity is not a likeable character trait.

Back to Clemetine Proulx:

Almost all the best heroes are essentially not so nice people overcoming their not-so-niceness. They do it throughout the story which in Hollywood is a character arc. Really "nice" people or "good" people are rather uninteresting heroes unless thrown into a plot driven story. I think of a Stephen King---The Mist---where the decent dad faces unbelievable situations. A hero is always reluctant at first, has character flaws, but eventually makes the satisfying choice. The more flawed the hero, the more he struggles, the more we care for him...so yes, Dexter could be called an anti-hero (like Hannibal who only eats rude people), but he is still a hero because he can't help who he is, formed by one of worst childhood experiences I can think of, but he struggles against it to do - ultimately - good. Sure we all want to kill bad guys. Actually we all want to kill people in our way. But Dexter follows a code that is essentially the code we all follow...only his is obvious and spelled out.


Clementine really knows what she's talking about. In the collaborative fiction novel FLESH she writes a character that is notable for being everything you don't expect in a heroine. She's old, ugly, pudgy, a fanatic fan of Tom Jones, with few social skills who was overjoyed when her mother was consumed by flesh-eating zombies, but her wit, spunk, and ingenuity gets the reader rooting for her nonetheless. In fact it is her flaws and her history (she was picked on mercilessly in school, had a sad and lonely family life) that causes the reader to love her with a passion.

In the same novel FLESH we have started a new chapter and my personal challenge is to create a hero that is essentially pretty unlikeable and yet, in the end, it is my hope that the readers are rooting for him to succeed. Michael is proud, pompous, prejudiced, and overly rigid in his thinking and actions. He's about to be thrown into a situation where he has to help the very people he's been alienating for years: his neighbors. You can check out my writing for this character here on my writing blog. I would love feedback, as the story progresses, about how well I'm doing at creating a flawed hero that you might hate to love.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Other People's Characters and the Voices in Your Head

As those of you that read my blog regularly know by now I write collaborative serial fiction. I got to thinking, recently, that writing with other author's characters is not so different than writing solo. It's certainly not what I would consider the main difference between writing a novel or short story and what I do. One of the most common experiences I have noticed with all fiction writers is that they talk about their characters coming to 'life' and having a voice of their own. Often writers will claim that they cannot force their characters to behave in a certain way - that each character has a will of their own.

This is totally true for me whether I write the character or someone else does. The only difference between my characters and the characters of my co-writers is that I don't hear the voices in my head. I have to have conversations. Since I do all of my collaborative fiction interaction online that comes in the form of e-mails, message-boards, and instant messages so it's damn near to voices in my head or my general writing experience. Just like when I'm creating my own characters it has its ups and downs. I have to work to be fluid enough to accommodate a writer being true to their character's personality, and keep us on plot, as well as not make my character the 'star' all the time. Just like with any successful living character I can find that they can bring something new to the story that I hadn't imagined but is better than before, and since this is collaboration their character has equal billing.

It's the same whether you are writing by yourself, maybe trying to stick to a plot and a synopsis, or whether you are in discussion with another person - sometimes a better idea comes along and you need to be flexible. In the case of a novelist it might be your own inner critic but it could equally be an objective reader, an editor, or an agent. You also have to know when to stick to your guns. Sometimes characters are wrong - what they think is good for them is not good for the overall storyline. It really doesn't matter who the author of that character is at this point.

My biggest problem with characters written by someone other than myself is not them being true to themselves but when they are out of sync with how my characters are. This doesn't usually come up with people I write with regularly, but with newer collaborators. When I first started out on this path and style of writing it used to happen far more regularly particularly because my main character was an historical person Wyatt Earp. People had very set preconceived notions of Wyatt based on their previous knowledge of the character whether from fictional accounts like the movie Tombstone or from skewed historical perspectives. More than once I had to 'buffalo' a few tough skulls to get it through to them that they needed to be reacting to my version of the character, not one previously written and engraved in their head.

That doesn't mean that there can't be a disparity in the way that one character views another. I think that can be very convincingly done in collaborative writing as long as each writer remembers that they might be omniscient but their characters are not. I still write fiction set around Wyatt Earp and I encourage those that write Cowboy characters to view Wyatt as a bully and a pimp, even if Wyatt sees himself as a righteous upright citizen. There is a huge difference in perceiving an event or set of behaviors through your character's spectacles and another between having characters act out of character.

What I think I enjoy the most about working with other author's characters is that they often have backgrounds and sets of experiences that my characters have no inkling of. Much as I might be able to imagine a full pantheon of unique characters with interesting backgrounds they all still share one common denominator: me. Other authors bring in their own unique life situations and that gives them a range of choices that can often be surprising to me. Sometimes it's unpredictable, but after the taste is acquired, collaboration can be a beautiful and inspirational exercise.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Decade of Our Youth

bo-derek-10I went grocery shopping last night after work. Exhausted though I was we were completely out of food and I'd gone to work in the morning with a stale croissant from Safeway and Starbucks (possibly the worst supermarket and worst coffee franchise ever) so I was resolute in my desire to fill a shopping cart with a basket of good food from a different food chain. Taking my time I was drawn to the magazine rack as I strolled by leaning heavily on the handle of the cart. People Magazine had put out one of its glossy special editions "Celebrate the 70's". The cover features the Bee Gees, Farah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Bo Derek, and Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease. The back cover is: Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Nixon, Mark Spitz, Star Wars, Patty Hearst, Donna Summers, David Cassidy, Burt Reynolds, and the Village People. I mention the cover images in detail because with the exception of Mark Spitz I could, without hesitation, name very single celebrity on the cover and the movie or show they were famous for or being featured in. This is particularly a feat considering Bo Derek was pretty much solely a phenomena of the 70's - known for one bouncing boob moment and a, at the time, unusual hair style. It's also amazing because if you gave me a cover of the 80's, 90's, or the 00's I would be lucky if I got 25%.

Much as I thought I hated the 70's at the time it is clear from this example that I am a child of the 70's. While I was born in the 60's and have always sort of revered that particular decade and felt the one that followed was really a pallid and sometimes laughable shadow of the previous epoch shattering decade, it is the 70's that stand out in my mind with a clarity that no other set of years will ever achieve - no matter how important personally to me. It's truly the nature of the beast that is called human. When we come of age is, for the majority of us, marked permanently in our brains in a way that no other time of our life ever really can match. We are marked forever by the intensity of our youth. We are moving from childhood to adulthood on a cresting wave of hormones and adventure. The life in front of us is full of the unknown and of promise. We are actualized hope and we soak up life like a sponge.

As artists, whether writers, painters, poets, musicians, or sculptors, we need to soak up the world around us with the same intensity all the time. For those of us mature in years enough to have gotten some distance from the decade of our awakening the line might seem quite clear from when we were almost entirely alert (though maybe not terribly self-aware) to the years that followed when, no matter how we tried, the lights became less bright, and the world started rushing past us so fast we couldn't hope to catch every image, every emotion. We all get tired out from so many hours spent washing the same dishes, going to the same supermarket, working the same job, but as artists we have to recapture the wide-eyed all-encompassing gaze of our youth. Your mind should be like a camera recording snapshots of life that you can paste into the album of your work. Age is what makes the selection of the images more discriminating.

I bought the special edition of People Magazine only to find that what I had once found to be banal and boring (oh the irony that when we are most awake we are also at our most opinionated and jaded!) to be bright, full of hope, and yes, even innocence. The 70's now seem to me to be halcyon compared to the decades that followed and I challenge anyone to disagree. I won't be watching reruns of Charlie's Angels anytime soon, but I can remember watching them the first time around far more clearly than I remember what I watched last night.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Announcing the Pan Press Project

guildimagePlans are moving ahead for the re-launch of the Pan Press as a division of a small publishing house. We had our first business meeting to discussion the structure of the operation. We have a couple designers ready and primed. My idea is to start with some of the best of the best of Pan Historia for the long overdue second Pan Birthday Book.

The Pan Birthday Book was published in 2004 as an anthology of all the various writing that could be found on the collaborative community's forums. It included sections from the role-play novels as well as essays from the reference book section, poetry, and in addition some great original artwork from some of our more graphically inclined members. It was sold solely on the site to the membership of Pan. It was a great fundraiser for the site and a great snapshot of where we were then.

It's five years later and I want to take our second Birthday Book just a little further. First of all it will be available via Amazon and other online booksellers and give our authors and artists a bigger potential audience. Because of my desire to showcase our creativity beyond our 'borders' I plan to run a contest for the entries with specific guidelines. The entries should be short stories that can stand alone for the pleasure of the reader. They can be collaboratively worked, based on storylines from the established novels at Pan, but tailored for inclusion in an anthology that might be read by people that have never visited Pan Historia.

If the second Birthday Book goes as planned I will start work on published versions of several of our collaborative novels, and hopefully members of the community will join in to create a shelf of work that can be treasured forever. The potential is limitless. Imagine being able to take your favorite online novel with you to the beach next summer? Imagine running your fingers over the pages of a novel you helped to write? I know I can't wait to see my first edition of my original fantasy story The Midnight People or my zombie horror collaborative FLESH And yes, I plan ebook versions if possible.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I Love the Smell of Paper Pulp in the Morning

I think about it sometimes. How would I feel if my work was published in an eBook format? I mean it's publication right? It's getting my stuff out there? So what that it's electronic? After all most of my work appears on the internet as pixels vibrating on your computer monitor, exactly as it is happening right now as you read this blog, so how would it be different? And yet it is. @mikecane is a huge advocate of eBooks and he's got me convinced that I need to invest in a reader - but still something more emotional and archaic tugs at my heartstrings when I think about myself as a published author.

I want to hold a book in my hands. I want the smell of paper, possibly the stain of ink on the pads of my finger. If I could have it I would want rag paper with watermarks and a stitched binding with a nice sturdy hardcover and fancy dust jacket. On the cover itself it would be nice if there was embossing, say in that beautiful glossy ink, or maybe in gold. Remember that scene in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) shows off his business card only to be outdone by his rival? Here was something so low-tech in a high powered high tech environment but the touch of the rag card, the subtle embossing, the texture of the raised text with the right depth of ink...

Ok, I admit it. I could get worked up over a paperbound edition of my work way more than I could over a virtual facsimile downloadable from Amazon.com. So while I would get very excited to see big fat royalties checks because my novel was selling in the thousands across the world, I would miss it if it were not also sitting on my book shelf. Just ask @fannyfae has she feels about 'real' books as opposed to eBooks.

With all this in mind I hope to relaunch Pan Press by the end of the year - creating beautiful editions, print on demand, of work by collaborative and solo writers from the Pan Historia community. Of course I will be looking into the option of eBook versions, I believe that most people, myself included, will want a copy of their own book on their bookshelf. While I appreciate that much of the sales of such volumes will be to friends and families, it's not inconceivable that full length novels and anthologies of completed works could garner wider appeal - who knows? We may one day produce a best seller. There is certainly enough talent on the site.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why I Love What I Do

Several times I have hit on the topic of the isolation of the writer. After all it's pretty much just you and your word processor (or for the Luddites amongst us: typewriters or yellow lined pads and a Number 2 pencil). Of course the cliché of the lonely writer pounding on his keyboard is a myth created around the lives of previous writers. Reading an article in the recent New Yorker issue about the teaching of Creative Writing in America breaks through that stereotype to how many writers have learned as part of a group. Self-taught writers might go to local community college workshops or join a writing group on or off line. On Sundays writers join in #writechat on Twitter. The internet has, for many writers, stripped away the isolation and allows for writers to enjoy relationships with their peers and their readers directly.

While I regret the need for writers to be their own publicist these days I don't regret the moves towards uniting writers with other like-minded people or allowing writers to bridge the gap from written word to the person that is reading that word.

Last night I was logged into my community site Pan Historia and I got a wonderful example of one of the myriad reasons that I love to be involved in a collaborative writing community. One of the members came to me to ask me about whether or not I thought that women during the 19th Century in the Old West would bathe naked or whether they would wear their undergarments. I don't believe this is a question that could be answered definitively because of the nature of the record from the Victorian Era, but the interaction was fun as we tried to determine what would make a believable historical scene. The person that instant messaged me got immediate feedback and help on what they were writing right in that moment.

When I write a fiction post for one of my collaborative role-play novels there I can get instant feedback - which I hugely enjoy. It's not always critical feedback, but that's ok. As writers we need to expand and grow, hone our skills, but more often than not we just want to know that other people are enjoying the tales we spin. By writing and publishing at an online community with like-minded people, both readers and writers of tales, I can interact with my readers and with my fellow writers in one fell swoop. I can get advice, I can find research sources (more on that in a later blog), and I just plain jump up and down to announce my latest effort.

Besides the feedback I get my other pleasure on the site is giving feedback to others. The excitement of logging onto Pan Historia to find a post by one of my writing partners in one of my favorite collaborative novels is akin to seeing the latest book by your favorite author showing up at the local bookstore. With some people it's just about the pleasure of reading their stuff, but I might enjoy a more critique based relationship with other trusted writers so that we might comment on each other's work. Another added benefit is that I might get a fresh eye to catch those typos and other errors that slipped by me even though I edit all my work before posting it online.

I know a lot of this sounds like an ad for my own site (and yes, there is an element of shameless plug here) but it's also probably true for other writing sites that you might have heard of or be involved in. I really think that the potential that resides in the internet is all about social media, interaction, and networking, and not about static information. I actually believe that all this interaction has allowed me to be a writer in a way that I don't think I could have managed before it. I am far too social an animal to write alone. Having my peers and readers right here at my fingertips, whether on Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, or at Pan Historia, actually liberates and inspires me to write, and to write better.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

#WriteChat on Twitter

Right now I'm participating in #writechat - which is a rather cool Twitter phenomena. Every Sunday writers form a free-wheeling chat group in the Twitter stream that weaves in and out of other conversations. Topics are about writing: inspiration, mood, tips, techniques, publishing, etc. For those new or unfamiliar with Twitter, the chat/microblogging platform, hashtags are used to separate out topics and make them easily searchable. If you have software like the Tweetdeck on your computer you can actually create a 'group' for any topic you want to follow and it separates them out for you, regardless of whether you follow that person or not.

One of the recurring topics on #writechat is often how such conversations help inspire writing or writers. I don't really find that to be true. Actually I tend to think of such activities as a bit of procrastination from the act of writing itself. After all if you're reading a bunch of 'tweets' about writing and then jumping in yourself you can hardly be busy at work.

That said I still think it's a very valuable tool. One of the reasons I'm a big fan of collaborative writing is that I'm a social animal. Traditionally writing has tended to be a lonely business with its fair share of misanthropes in its austere and often dusty ranks. Activities like #writechat connect up different writers to each other and shake out the cobwebs. So even though it doesn't always lead me to more or better writing, I would be the last one to deny the benefits of just hanging out and getting to know other writers.

And for those that argue that they can see no point in Twitter it's definitely one of the better uses of the application. It is an excellent Petri dish for meeting and breeding new writers and just one of the examples of how Twitter can be used in a good way to increase connections between people, rather than magnify the modern malaise of alienation, as many detractors of social media claim.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Thoughts on Immortality

kingsI received a copy of a trade magazine in the mail that I used to write a regular feature for as part of my last job. My feature was also always the cover story. The new issue included the latest of these regular features, now, of course, written by my successor. To read the magazine presents a seamless tradition. There was and is no byline on this feature. To the casual observer there has been no change at all. Life goes on within and without me. Holding a copy of this magazine in my hand led to some bittersweet reflection about the footprint that we leave in life.

I am one of those vain animals that has always longed to leave my mark upon the world - some tangible proof that I was here, that I existed. Perhaps it's not just simple vanity or a purely self-centered self-interest. I have always been captured by history, and in particular art. Beginning with the evocative fossilized remains of the first human footprints to the air-brushed (yes, air-brushed - they would blow the pigment from their mouths over the back of their hands as they pressed them to the cave wall) outlines of human hands along with graceful renderings of animals in the Lascaux caves we leave our prints on the more durable materials that compose our world.

Pharaohs and Kings had their names and idealized images carved into monumental stone so that they would live eternally in the hearts and minds of those that followed, but even the humbler of our species created marks to trace their path by. If you observe closely the stones upon which ancient stone masons worked you can see the lines of their tools etched into the stone like you can see Van Gogh's brushstrokes on canvas, even the bristles from his paintbrushes, more tangible even than the signature. Greek potters began the cult of personal identification by beginning to mark their wares with a signature much like earlier Ancient Egyptian stonemason crews also left their 'team' mark on the stones.

As we advance in time artists, scientists, philosophers, and more began to leave their names more indelibly than kings and priests. Eventually even more humble people make footnotes in the history books, the images, and the remains of our various civilizations. In my research of the American West I come across hundreds of such people, moments of their lives captured in birth certificates, newspaper reports, tintypes, and inscriptions in the family bible.

Our popular culture worships celebrity and notoriety, which is sort of the dark underbelly of the shining desire to leave a tangible traceable mark upon history; a trail that can lead from one moment in time to another and allow people to make connections between the past and the present and feel the wash of history flow through them as something real and relevant. Celebrity can be a vanishing thing; here one moment and gone the moment after.

My impulse to write or make art is inextricably tied up with my desire to one of the threads of the fabric of the world. It's a desire for a tangible immortality that transcends time or fleeting fame. I was here. I existed. Perhaps it stems from doubt about the existence of an afterlife, or perhaps it's just natural hubris, but when I look around me at my achievements past and present there is really only one way that I feel I have made a unique contribution to the world, and that is my community site Pan Historia.

However how indelible can a web site be? I know that I have touched hundreds of people, and that I have made a difference in some of their lives that will be remembered all of their lives, but how about the future? I believe this question can be asked of the whole of the internet. It's very nature is ephemeral and ever changing. Who tomorrow will remember communities like Pan Historia or even MySpace or Facebook? Where are the graceful strong carved lines in stone? How can I rest assured of my immortality when in a the flip of a switch all that I have worked for is gone forever with one electronic wink? Achievements on the internet seem as brief and fragile as human life itself.

Proud as I am of my personal achievements I do feel like I am rushing headlong to the abyss, and I don't know what is on the other side. Desperately I crave the book that I can cradle in my hand, put on my shelf, and know that it will be here after I am gone. Books burn, degrade, rot, or get recycled, but surely one such tome can survive the ravages of cruel time to carry my name long after I am gone? Some future person will happen upon it on a dusty shelf in an obscure second-hand bookstore, a throwback to a gentler slower past, and there will be my name, my words, and it will be as if I still live.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Jack of All Trades

"Jack of all trades, master of none."

There is something compelling about being considered good at everything, and yet... I long to be a 'master' of my trade. The problem, for me, is my own nature. Neither side of my brain seems entirely dominant, and the entire world is full of wonderful things I want to do. Having started a new job my head is now full of botanical genus and species and tables of environmental requirements and micro climates.

I'm in the middle of a re-structure of my volunteer staff system at the community interactive fiction and role-play site I own and run. The ins and outs of refocusing people to create an even livelier and more community orientated site is a highly creative and rewarding task for me. Dealing with all the different personality types is challenging but in a really good way.

I still have a ton of little programming tasks to complete.

So when I sat down about fifteen minutes ago planning to write a little fiction for one of my collaborative novels I found myself unwilling. Over and over again I have pushed the agenda that to be a writer you need to write. Fortunately for me I have other outlets for my writing. Fiction is the left brain of my writing persona. Writing my blog or composing clearly written legible staff agreements that communicate my intent successfully is the right side of my writing self.

Writing is the one thing that I do that ties all the other areas together. Since my community site is online my only method of communication is through the written word. It has forced me to hone my skills. That, in turn, has synergistically impelled my fiction writing to new heights. Talking about any of my activities via my blog whether it be gardening, writing, or painting allows me to continue to sharpen my quill day by day.

The act of writing in all its forms has become essential to the core of me. I may be jack of all other trades, but in the end I aspire to be master of one. Wait ... what does that remind me of?

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.


Bwahaha!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Evolution of a Collaborative Role-Play Character

I recently posted another installment of fiction from my character Red King on my fiction blog and it occurred to me to explain why the character was named the way he was named in a short introductory note, but when I reflected upon the answer it occurred to me that there was a more there than a short sentence could reveal.

My character 'Red King' is quite old. I have been writing him in various collaborative fiction pieces for almost nine years now. He has had various incarnations. The story of his development is a good example of the creativity and fluidity of collaborative fiction characters as well as the various inspirations that lend a hand.

Starting with his name: I always thought the name 'Red Adair' was rather dashing. For those of you that don't remember Red was a famous firefighter dealing with highly dangerous oil rig fires. Not only was he a real life hero but he had a great name. Naturally I couldn't just lift it from him since he was a living person at the time that I was inspired so I started looking for a last name that would fit 'Red' as well as Adair did. 'King' came to mind easily as I am a poker player. At first I resisted the poker/chess connection but it presented such great visuals to my mind it was irresistible.

At Pan Historia we use 'avatars' to visually represent our characters. The sources for these avatars can come from movies, art, advertising, or television, as well as original artwork by those that are graphically talented. I favor movie actors for the diversity of images available. It gives me the pleasure of feeling like I am casting a movie. I have always used Sean Connery for Red. When Red was first created he was a detective for a fun little collaborative game we used to write at Pan Historia called The Marlowe Detective Agency (the less details the better, I always want to revive this one).

After that collaborative novel expired he went on to appear in various other novels that required a detective or cop character with varying degrees of success. He started aging quite naturally and over time the avatars reflected an older Connery. When I had the idea for story behind The Midnight People it wasn't obvious which characters would fit for it, but I still wanted to use my regular stable. I have a tendency to keep a good character and use him over and over. Other writers at Pan often opt for creating a new distinct character for each novel or story they participate in. I like recycling because I like working on a character over the long term. By placing them in new settings I can explore other aspects of their personality that might not be revealed in one set of circumstances over another. Putting a detective into a fantasy novel was something new and challenging for me.

The premise of The Midnight People is that faeries and the stories about them are real. They exist in a dimension just outside of our own. Their world is fading and dying because of the lack of belief by humans and our negative impact on the environment as the faery kind are closed linked to nature. To solve their dilemma they create themselves as changelings in the human world, and once 'awakened' to their true selves they begin a great war against humanity. The Midnight People takes place in two intertwined storylines both before the faery invasion and after it: the waking and the dreaming. The Waking is in the past and the Dreaming (that the wakers dream about) is their future.

In the past, the Waking, my character Red King is Red King a retired detective with tragedy in his past. In the Dreaming he is King Nuada, the Red King of the Tuatha de Danann, once known as The Silver Hand.

For inspiration for his 'faery' persona I grabbed some Celtic myths. King Nuada was the first king of the Tuatha de Danann who lost his kingship when he lost his arm. He was able to regain it when a new arm was fashioned from silver for him. I presumed that much of the history from mythology was my character's back-story, but I then I added a great deal more as there were several thousand years in between until we arrive in our own century where the Waking and Dreaming storylines take place. Thus he has a new younger Queen, Aisling, when the story of The Midnight People takes place, as well as relatively young daughters in faery years. It turned out equally well, for my choice of Connery as avatar, that Connery has frequently appeared in movies with an Arthurian theme.

For the same novel I recycled my Ancient Egyptian villain Itet. Itet was an odd name for twenty-first century character in the Waking half of the story and so it became Ian Itet, but some of the Egyptian influence remained in the Dreaming when I assumed that if faeries were real they existed back in Ancient Egypt too, albeit with different names and beliefs around them. In my mind there needed to be an explanation for Itet's odd sounding name that didn't match any known faery belief system. It seems, then, that recycling characters can actually help me find solutions to creative fiction problems that bring new ideas and new concepts to the stories adding a little more originality.

For those of you experienced in collaborative role-play fiction writing I hope I have shed some light on my ideas and inspiration. For those of you new to the genre I hope you will be curious enough to explore it more.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Is It a Rose by Any Other Name?

Naming a fictional character can be a tricky business. The right name can make a character greater, and the wrong name can derail all your carefully drawn details. The importance of a name on people's perception of a character or even a real person has long been understood. In literature the Bronte sisters were originally given male pseudonyms in order to render them more serious and palatable to their potential readership. The author George Sand was born Amanda Aurore Lucille Dupin. Later on Hollywood was following a similar practice. Only in their case they weren't hiding gender but often accentuating it with what were either considered lovely memorable feminine names or manly names befitting a man of action. Who doesn't now know that Cary Grant started life out as Archibald Leach? They did hide, however, ethnicity in many cases. Theda Bara was actually Theodosia Burr Goodman, a good Jewish girl from Ohio.

Historically a name can make or break whether or not someone is remembered. In Allen Barra's examination of the fame and notoriety of Wyatt Earp, Inventing Wyatt Earp, he devotes a section of the book to speculating on why it is Wyatt Earp more than his brother Virgil Earp that is remembered as the upright lawman with the Buntline Special Colt .45. He quite congenitally points out that, besides a few other details of Wyatt's fame, 'Wyatt Earp' just rolls off the tongue better than 'Virgil Earp' does. Keeping to the western theme 'Doc Holliday' is a magical moniker that gives the owner a permanent password to fame. In the town of Tombstone at the very same time lived a medical doctor who was known as Doc Goodfellow, and while the name appears to be nearly as good, and then good doctor was, in fact, a brilliant physician and innovator, it is the gunfighting tubercular dentist who's name really sings in the memory.

In fiction, as in fact, it is a great boost to memorability to have a great name. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote in his early memoir Pumping Iron of his intention to keep his funny sounding Austrian name that was hard to spell, despite Hollywood practice, because he believed that it's very unusualness would ensure that people remembered him. It seems to have worked in his case though many actors and actresses have discarded their own prosaic sounding names. After all would Cary Grant have been quite so suave and sophisticated as Archibald Leach? The name shouts his working class roots as well as having an unfortunate association with small blood-sucking invertebrates. I have come across many unfortunate names in real life such as Doreen Wonderlick and Dick Swet. You have to wonder what the parents were thinking.

Unless you want a comic character you want to avoid doing the same thing to your own 'children' of your imagination. I can't tell you how to choose a good name, but I do several things. I collect names. When I hear a good name I keep a note of it. I, of course, mix and match. It's very important to say the name aloud a few times to make sure it sounds right. You might want something melodious or you might want something guttural and punchy. It is good to consider whether or not it fits your character. Like A Boy Named Sue it could be ironic or it could be a perfect match; something that suggests that your character just couldn't be named anything else and be the same person.

When I write collaborative fiction at Pan Historia I often find the name coming first - surfacing out of the depths of my mind like a leviathan breaching. The name draws the rest of the beast out into the open sea of my imagination until I have a fully realized character. Most of the time though I think writers will have a character in mind and need to name them after. In your short story or novel there will be many supporting characters - each will need a name. I would give as much thought to the smallest bit part as to the hero or heroine. A small character with a funny or unusual name well thought out can become more vivid in the reader's mind. Who can forget Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy? Now tell me what John Voight's lead character's name was from the same movie? Can't? It's Joe Buck - a name very suitable for the character but completely upstaged by Ratso Rizzo. All of these factors should be of consideration when you're naming characters. Whatever you do, don't just open up the White Pages and randomly pick a name.

Be armed with names ahead of time. Keep a notebook with all the great names you come across including the names of family members or friends that you find evocative. You might not have occasion to use them right away, but in time they might be just the right moniker for some well-crafted character. It's ok, in a manuscript or draft, to play with different names, or versions of a name, until you get it right. It's a little more difficult in collaborative fiction because you create the character before you start writing, but be prepared to delete that which does not work.

Writers: I would love to hear your tips and techniques for picking out the right name for your characters. Feel free to comment and keep the discussion going.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

When Writing Becomes a Chore

When you have to write your 1000 words for the day of your novel or even a short but essential blog post and all you can think about is doing the dishes instead or doing that project in the garage that you've been putting off people are apt to call it 'writer's block'. If you overcome that block to actually sit down and do the writing you have pledged to do then that's when you become a writer. At this moment I'm really talking to those that would like to become professionals. As an owner of a site like Pan Historia I am fully a champion of those that come to write just for the pure fun of it. If you're a surfer you don't grab a surfboard and head to the beach on a day you're not in the mood. In this post I am addressing those of you that want to be professional writers, and I place myself among you.

My inspiration this morning came from my own disinclination to write a blog on writing. Over the short time I have maintained this blog I have written a number of short articles on the craft of writing, both general and for the relatively new field of collaborative self-published fiction. All the standard advice for bloggers contains the advice to keep your blog fresh with new content, but what happens when you run out of ideas? There are only so many topics right? Or is that just me avoiding writing when I know I should? It's very probably the latter. Actually it's definitely the latter.

Whenever, as a writer, you feel 'blocked' it's time to write around it, or through it. Several things can happen: 1) you can spend hours writing a crappy post/chapter (and I still say hooray for you because there is growth in failure, perhaps more so than success) and have to throw it away. 2) you find yourself picking up speed and really getting into your topic/story. 3) you can discover what is that is really blocking you in a particular piece. If the result of writing through a block is number one you still have to do it all over again your next writing period. You cannot let that hurdle cause you to stumble - not if you want to be a professional. Remember writing as a career has deadlines and schedules just like any other job. Because most writers are their own supervisors (if not their own boss) that means developing a strong writing discipline.

Even if you are as of yet unpublished it's a really smart idea to establish good working practices. If you're not being paid yet (oh, grasshopper) then it's often even more difficult to overcome the roadblocks put in your path by your own mind and by others... oh yes, others. If you work from home you know how many times friends and relatives will say "you're not doing anything, can you help?" If you have a significant other, even a supportive one, there will be lapses. "I was at work all day, and you were at home, why didn't you clean the __________?" You can fill in the blanks. Creating a strong and regular writing schedule for yourself, that you don't cheat on, means sticking to it, regardless of the views of friends and loved ones. You might have a lot of diverse responsibilities such as kids, jobs, or looking after a relative, but if you are serious about being a writer you still need to carve out the time.

I have talked on this subject before, and at length, but I don't think it can be repeated enough. I have several friends who are published writers and when a novice comes to them for advice it's always the same: you wanna write? Then write.

There: I have written.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Writing Scumbags and Bimbos

Sometimes you just have to do it.

You have to write about characters you don't understand, you don't like, or you even hate. I'm not just talking about the vicarious thrill of writing that demonic bad guy that gets all the women and does all the stuff you wish you could do if only you weren't a nice law-abiding citizen (i.e. if you had the cajones). I mean the kind of person you just don't get or want to get. Of course, for me, in collaborative writing there really isn't any 'must' or 'should'. If I want to I can avoid it, but then I would never grow as a writer, and I would never have a full pantheon of human variation.

Maybe it's just a supporting character, or a character that walks on once, but there comes a time when you do have to try and get into the head of someone very different than yourself. It's said that ever character we write (or every portrait we paint) is really just autobiography, but I'm here to challenge you to pull the rabbit out of the hat and write a character so different that it might even make you uncomfortable to put the words to blank virtual page.

It's an old chestnut that you should write what you know, I have dealt with my feelings on that elsewhere in this blog, but you can use other people you know or have met as a template: the bully in school, the weird guy at your last job that creeped you out, or the shallow ingenue. It's all too easy, however, to get bogged down in predictability and cliche if you're not careful. If you watch TV you will all too often see the stock set of character types brought out for every new episode, but if you want to convince your readers that your character is a living breathing human being you need to delve a little deeper than stereotypes.

You can start with the exterior action, but you have to find a way to get into the head of your unpleasant or unlikeable character just as much as you do with your main protagonist. What works for me is to start imagining myself as the character, doing the actions in my mind, then maybe running some interior dialogue. Your base might be close to a stereotype (after all they exist for a reason) but as you imagine the character more fully they come alive for you and might do some surprising things. If you only view them from the outside you will find yourself just sticking with cliche - stuff you have seen before elsewhere. We are all natural mimics. But going from the inside out you might achieve some unique insight that allows you to jump out of the stereotypes into a real portrayal of an individual.

One important thing to remember: whether or not a character is the hero or the villian, or a walk on bit part, everyone is the hero in their own life. If your creepy nose-picking bike messenger does something 'evil' why are they doing it? Maybe it's spite because they feel unloved or slighted? Whatever the motivation ends up being it's something you can relate to. Deep down inside of every thoughtless shallow ingenue is a girl looking for love and validation. The base ingredients of every human being are pretty much the same. Once you get inside your unlikeable character's heads you'll probably start to sympathize with them a little, and when you do that you start to bring them to life for your readers.