Friday, September 24, 2010

Reader's Journal 9/24/10

A few days ago, I finally finished the second half of Roberto Bolaño's 2666.  I'd begun it way back in February or March, right around the time I was applying to/frantically writing stories for the Clarion workshop, and I'd got about halfway through it by the time I was accepted (you can read my thoughts about it then here).  I put it down at that point, partly because it was pretty overwhelming as a work of fiction, but mostly because I suddenly had a lot of reading to do in order to prepare for the workshop.  After it was over (and I'd finished reading The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, which I read for fun at Clarion (you know, in all my spare time), and which I really enjoyed, and will hopefully remember to write about sometime), and I had returned home, I decided to pick it back up again.

As I recollect, I'd blown through the first of the five books, The Part About the Critics, very quickly, getting lost in the intertwinings of the the professional (and personal) lives of a group of Eurpoean academics whose scholarly work revolved around the books of a German author named Benno Von Archimboldi.  Archimboldi bookends 2666, as the subject of scholarly interest in his work in the first book, and as the protagonist or at least the subject of the fifth.  One can only assume that his (tenuous, ambiguous, possbily illusory) connection to the three middle books, which deal with the imaginary Mexican city of Santa Teresa (modeled, I have it on good authority, on Ciudad Juarez), comprises the mystery that Bolaño invites the reader to... well, not really solve, but perhaps explore, since it seems to be one of Bolaño's central artistic tenets (at least so far as 2666 is concerned) not to solve any mysteries, but merely to present them in all their ineffable squalor and glory, that the reader may contemplate and engage with them on his or her own.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Sun, in Ultraviolet

Thank you, APOD.
Peace, though beloved of our Lord, is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbors share your conscience.
-David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas p 16

Why I Love John Cole

Because every now and again he says something like this:

You know what? Screw the damned markets. How about we start crafting economic policy that makes sense for Americans, and the market thing will take care of itself. How about we get people back to work so they can start spending and investing and saving, rather than worrying about the fee-fees of our “producers” on Wall Street. I’ve got a basic premise here I’m working off of- if more people are working, more people are buying shit and paying taxes, the market will be just fine.

 It's the complete lack of bullshit that really makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.  I've been reading this guy for years now, and I can't think of anybody who's made me say "Not just yeah, but hell yeah!" so consistently and often.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dept. of True Dat

A conservative doesn't want anything to happen for the first time; a liberal feels it should happen, but not now.
-Mort Sahl

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Enthusiasm Gap

I've done my level best for some months now to stop obsessively following politics in America.  I still think it's important (being that this is the game that determines the shape of the field and the rules of the game we all play by), but I've been trying to concentrate on other things, for the sake of my sanity as well as many other good reasons.

But I still keep my ear to the ground, if for no other reason than that obsessions die slowly, and one thing I keep hearing in the run-up to the midterm elections this November is about the enthusiasm gap between those on the left and those on the right.  The story I keep hearing goes something like this:  the wingnut right is in ascendance, making lots of noise and getting lots of coverage, because their side lost last time and so they've decided it's the End of Days, and as a result they've gone even crazier (or just gotten louder about it).  And since apparently very few of them work they spend a lot of time protesting and driving up Glenn Beck's TV ratings.  They hate Barack Obama and everything he stands for, even when he stands for the same things they do, and they're all really excited to go to the polls and elect like-minded ignorami who believe things that are completely crazy, like that doctor visits should be paid for with chickens, that social security ought to be privatized or abolished, and that tax cuts will solve the budget deficit.

On the flipside you've got the left, who're upset because Obama hasn't completely reversed the world-historical fuckups of the Bush Administration and because the political realities of actually governing (especially when the opposition party doesn't negotiate in good faith or actually want government to work) require compromises that are disappointing to them.  And apparently many of them are so upset that they are considering staying home en masse come November in order to punish the Democrats for not living up to their dreams and making everything better in the two years or so they've had control of the White House and both Houses of Congress.

Now, I have every sympathy for people who find the Democrats maddening. 


(Hat tip Xeni J. from Boing Boing)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Quick n Dirty Chimichurri

This is a recipe (or variation thereon) I got from my Aunt and Uncle back in Florida.  They are pretty foodie kinda folks, and my uncle is one of those guys that can do just absolutely magical things with a hunk of meat and a grill.

Made this this morning to marinate some bison steaks for a BBQ this afternoon.  I'd say the proportions as enumerated below make most of a quart (which you can use as marinade and/or condiment, and which freezes quite nicely).

2 bunches flat-leaf parsley
1 large red onion
1/2 head of garlic (peeled)
juice of 1 lemon
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste (I use a tsp of each, more or less)

Peel the garlic, coarsely chop the onion, throw it all in a food processor, and let the good times roll.  Easy peasy and delicious to boot.  Works especially well on red meat.

Mmmmmmmm... red meat.

Update:  Ken K. points out (quite rightly) that a little crushed red pepper is both delicious and appropriate, with which I heartily concur.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dept. of True Dat

That earnest, upward-striving society of Eisenhower simplicity, of well-paid factory workers dreaming of a little summer place at the lake, and the Main Streets bustling in the cheerful early twilight of Christmas Eve, and the Beach Boys crooning about "fun, fun, fun," and purloined German physicists stashed in comfortably aire-kooled rooms, turning a few tossed-off equations into moon-shots, and Bob Hope cracking wise before a nationwide audience of car-dealers and self-satisfied Rotarians - well that America has imploded like a weevil-infested hubbard squash in a back pantry. And all the prayers to Moloch by the Jesus boomers in and out of congress won't make it whole again.
-James Howard Kunstler

Dept. of Yup

On the other hand, the 100-million-dollars worth of banking industry, brokerage industry, oil industry and pharmaceutical industry commercials that paid everyone’s salaries were bright and lively.


What Americans desire most from their entertainment is to identify with the good guy as he kicks the bad guy's ass.

Mad Props!

To Tom Underberg and Kali Wallace, two of my Clarion classmates whose entries were selected for the Thackery T. Lambshead's Cabinet of Curiosities anthology.  Good job, guys.

An explanation of what I'm talking about, along with all of the submissions, can be found here

And, for what it's worth, here's mine, slightly redacted:

WOODEN STAKE.  8-3/8” long, base diameter 1-15/16” tapering to a sharp point.  Item was mistaken for a structural element of the cabinet until the discovery, in a separate wax-sealed box, of a note dated September 1735.  Signed by Drs. Flückinger and Glaser, the note identifies the item as the hawthorne stake driven through the heart of Arnont Paule’s exhumed corpse in the village of Medveda in Serbian Moravia, ca. 1726 (the posthumous certifications of Paule and Petar Blagojević by Austro-Hungarian medical authorities are considered proximate causes of the Eighteenth Century Vampire Controversy).  Dendrochonological analyses confirm item to be fire-hardened Crataegus monogyna, 250-350 years old.  Haematology samples reveal certain unexplained irregularities and traces of at least five individuals’ genetic material.  Dr. L-------- is believed to have won the item from a bastard son of Otto Habsburg-Lothringen in a card game in Paris in 1967.

Writer's Journal 9/12/10

Today's been downright writerful, all things considered.  Woke up and spent the morning doing critiques for my new writing group (or, rather, the already-established writing group that was kind enough to welcome me as a new member), finishing just in time to make the meeting in a punctual manner.  Seemed like a productive session.  I feel like it's probably about time for me to submit something for critique, though I'm not quite sure what.  Of the things I wrote at Clarion (which comprise the bulk of my shorter work), I've only revised one, and it seems like kind of a waste to workshop any of the rest, at least until I've had a chance to fool around with them some and fix the problems I know are there.  I suppose that means that the thing to submit is the one I've revised, but for some reason I left the session with the ambition that I would pick another one and fix it up for everybody (and, of course, it was one of the ones I haven't really thought about much yet, because that's how I roll).

I need to be careful about that, though.  After all, the plan is to stay focused on the (hopefully short) novel I've been developing for the last couple weeks.  I have not been terribly productive of late (hence the paucity of Writer's Journal posts here, or any posts at all for that matter, aside from my habit of passing along various and assorted pithy encapsulations and quotable quotes for your delectation and delight). 

Partly, it's that my regularly-scheduled life has taken up a fair bit of my time; I'm currently in the midst of reorganizing my files and paperwork and such, with an eye towards getting my various taking-care-of-business-type stuff wrestled into manageable and comprehensible form.  I was also, until Friday night, organizing a surprise birthday party for my lovely and awesome girlfriend Kendal, (in the Pussy Room at the Copper Gate in Ballard; later the two of us wandered down to Ocho, which is where I took Kendal on our first date (and have taken her on several subsequent dates), for some late-night tapas and cocktails).

So, partly I've just been busy with life, and not very disciplined about making time to work.  But I've also been trying to lay back and let my creative subconscious do its thing.  So far it seems to be working.  I finally got a chance to sit down and work on the outline a bit tonight, and though I definitely suffered from some focus issues (as I tend to do), I managed to get a fair bit of work done. 

I'm kind of excited with this new approach I'm trying, figuring out how it's all going to fit together before I actually start writing it.  I've always been a start, and when you get to the end, stop kind of writer, which, given the rate and quantities at which ideas occur to me, has led me down any number of paths that led nowhere besides the conviction that it was time to start over. 

So this whole planning things out in advance thing is a really refreshing change.

And it seems to be paying off.  Despite my hummingbird's attention span, I still managed to tack 1000 words or so onto the plan tonight, and I seem to be developing a structure (for the plan, at least) that's working for me.  I've got much (though not quite all) of part one figured out, two ideas for the prologue that are fighting it out in my head, and the early stages of part two mapped out as well. 

The way I'm organizing it is into three sections for each part (there are three in addition to the prologue, provisionally named Camel, Lion, and Child):  a summary of what happens and what it means, writing notes (on POV, tone, what's hidden and revealed, etc), and a basic sequence of events.  I imagine as I make more passes over the thing, the structure will continue to ramify, but I am pleased so far with how I'm figuring out not only the plot but also how to tie it to the overall structure of the novel.  I mean, I've experienced some of these sorts of epiphanies before with my previous project (the giant sprawling mess currently on the backburner while I do this more limited, probably more saleable project), but never in this focused a manner.  It's great.

As to the plan going forward, I aspire to have the outlining and preliminary work done in three to four weeks, after which I intend to schedule enough writing time (and keep the project limited enough) to bang out a draft in three to four months (say by mid-January). 

I think I'm most of the way to ready to start pushing it a little in terms of engagement.  After all, I did much if not most of the heavy lifting at Clarion, concept-wise, and it seems like the ongoing epiphany process seems to be well underway.  I've been taking it easy since I got back, waiting while my subconscious reconfigured itself and internalized the many invaluable lessons I learned over the summer.  I'm still not quite ready to start writing.  But I can feel it coming, and I think my plan, though it'll be intense, is doable, especially if I'm able to keep forging ahead with all this planning and outlining.

The only problem is staying focused, which brings me back to the first paragraph of the present installment of this writer's Writer's Journal.  Because I do also want to workshop stories, and critique, and submit for publication and such.  But I have some fear that I'll get sidetracked from the project I'm supposed to be working on, so I'm going to have to figure that out.  I've thought a little about trying to write some flash fiction (1000 words or less, for those unfamiliar with the term), which doesn't seem like it would be too distracting, and would provide sufficient fodder for submission (and rejection).  I just have to think of things that are amenable to being written in that form.  But I don't know.  Maybe I should stay focused on the project at hand, and let the rest slide, at least until I've got a completed draft.

Either way, it's a pretty exciting place to be. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dept. of Yup

So many pixels are wasted in the pundit business arguing that good people shouldn’t have to follow the law of the land, when what ought to be argued is that the law of the land needs to change so good people can get on with their lives free of state interference.
-mistermix at Balloon-Juice

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Dept. of Speak, Brother, Speak

When someone says that the drug war is a failure because instead of stopping drug use, it destabilizes narco-producing regions of the world, brutalizes the underclass, perpetuates inequality, and foments the expansion of the police-prison state, then that person has mistaken a slogan for a product. When someone muses that our "strategy" in Iraq or Afghanistan is a failure because it is not producing "a durable, non-violent resolution to . . . political conflicts", then that person is a fool. And when someone says that late, post-industrial capitalism fails to "bring together willing buyers with willing sellers in order to produce value," then I wonder in what idealized world of pure form and meaning has this man been living, because obviously, if you consider the current American economy and the global system in which it is embedded, the production of "value" is incidental to the continued concentration of material wealth and political influence. That is the point. It isn't a failure of the system. It is the system.

Cui bono, motherfuckers?
That last line should be the motto and first question of any serious seeker after political or economic truth.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Dept. of True Dat

When you expect stuff, you get disappointed.  When you don't expect stuff, you get surprised, and that's much better.
-Mike O.

Dept. of True Dat

Conservatives are satisfied with present evils; liberals want to replace them with new ones.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Why Damon Knight was Famous and I'm Not

Real life does not often furnish a dramatic series; if it did, our instinct for order and design would be satisfied, and very likely we would feel no need for fiction.
-Damon Knight, Creating Short Fiction p 90
 See, it's just like what I said, only pithier and more insightful.

I've been reading Creating Short Fiction off and on for the last week or two, and it's pretty freakin' fantastic.  I wish I'd read it before Clarion, so as to avoid some of the rookie mistakes that I made there, and I'm pretty sure I'll end up reading it (or parts of it) over and over again, until I have finally and fully absorbed the many, many invaluable lessons on craft and storytelling it contains.

It's out of print, but if you or someone you love wants to be a writer, or a better one that you/they already are, I can't recommend this book enough.

While I'm at it, I also highly recommend Kate Wilhelm's Storyteller.  The two of them pretty much invented the Clarion Writers' Workshop, and, in addition to successful careers as writers, they taught writing (or what of writing can be taught, which is a post for another day) for decades, and both of them have a lot to say about how it's done sucessfully.

It's funny; I spent many years convinced that I could figure out how to write on my own, and in some senses I was right.  But it sure is a lot easier when you have such handy guides to the nuts and bolts of things.  Wish I'd picked up both of these many years ago.

Truth is a Bitter Pill to Swallow

While we were distracted searching for Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, Iran began revving up its actual nuclear program and Osama bin Laden and his fanatics ran free to regroup in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We handed Al Qaeda a propaganda coup by sacrificing America’s signature values on the waterboard. We disseminated untold billions of taxpayers’ dollars from Baghdad’s Green Zone, much of it cycled corruptly through well-connected American companies on no-bid contracts, yet Iraq still doesn’t have reliable electricity or trustworthy security. Iraq’s “example of freedom,” as President Bush referred to his project in nation building and democracy promotion, did not inspire other states in the Middle East to emulate it. It only perpetuated the Israeli-Palestinian logjam it was supposed to help relieve.
-Frank Rich

Friday, September 03, 2010

Writer's Journal 9/3/10

By the last week of Clarion, I was pretty sure I knew what the plan was, at least as far as my writing was concerned.  I was going to revise (some of) the stories I wrote there, one by one, and send them out for publication or, more likely, rejection.  I was going to buckle down and write an outline for the novel I've been slaving away on for the last eight or ten years, then get to work on a draft, which I'd hoped to complete in some reasonable yet currently unspecified period of time.  Then I was going to do some concept-work on a couple of other ideas I've been kicking around. 

Oh, and I was going to start looking into putting together a Clarion Class of 2010 anthology, so we could all become rich and famous and stuff, and maybe even raise a little money for the Workshop, which is, like all worthwhile nonprofit enterprises, generally in need of financial support in order to continue its mission of training and grooming the coming generations of speculative fiction authors to delight and amaze readers of all ages and backgrounds.

That was the plan, anyway.

I knew I'd probably experience a slump in productivity after it was over.  Indeed I was encouraged by several of my instructors to welcome such a period of creative inactivity whilst my hindbrain absorbed and internalized the many valuable lessons about craft and storytelling I'd learned.  So I didn't much worry about the fact that on those few occasions I sat down to write something (even a simple blog post) that my brain turned quickly to inarticulate, unimaginative mush, and so I went on with the business of getting my regularly-scheduled life back in order without worrying about it overmuch.

Then, this week, I decided it was time to get back to work.  It was a little arbitrary, to be honest.  I had recently joined a writers group, and there was a session scheduled for Wednesday for a few folks to get together and write.  Of course I forgot to check the yahoo group, so I didn't know that noone else was going to show up, but once I was there I figured I might as well do something, so I pulled up the story I'd intended to revise next and tried to get to work.

It was not quite so difficult as literally pulling teeth, but the phenomena were not unrelated.  I kept getting lost in little culs-de-sac of word choice, and I found that my hindbrain had neglected to formulate solutions to the many problems my fellow Clarionites had so helpfully pointed out to me, nor to string together a plot or any real narrative structure out of what ideas I did have about it.

Okay, I thought to myself.  No worries.  Maybe that one needs to marinate for a little while.

So I thought maybe I'd hunker down with my novel, really get it figured out and outlined at least enough to start working on again, but it's so big, and there're so many things to figure out, that it gives me a headache just thinking about it.  Truth be told, I'm starting to think that GoATDaD and the Army of Monkeys will turn out to be my masterpiece, which means, among other things, that it'll probably be a good few years before I'm ready to complete it.  I'm still thinking about it, and mulling over the details of the plot and the themes I'm trying to string together into something meaningful, but I'm realizing that I want a more limited project to work on for now.

Which is where today comes in.  Having run into the previously enumerated dead ends, I decided to do some concept-work on another project I've been mulling over.  Despite a few obvious flaws, I was really happy with the last story I wrote at Clarion, and one of the things that were on the near-to-middle horizon was to do a little thinking about expanding it to novel length.  So today, lacking inspiration to do anything else, but feeling like I needed to do something useful and writerly with my time, I decided to do a little background work on character and plot.

Apparently, this is the project I want to be working on.  Backstory and concepts literally poured out of me, two thousand words' worth in a few hours.  My protagonist's life story, which I'd sketched out in my mind beforehand, came together as if I were reading the executive summary of her biography.  The speculative elements (some of which I'd developed for GoATDaD) fit themselves to each other and the world I'm building as if made for one another.  I even got about halfway through a basic plot/strucural synopsis before I got tired and switched over to writing this.

I don't know if I have a muse, other than my readerly self, but I definitely have what Kate Wilhem (one of the founders of the Clarion Writers' Workshop) calls a Silent Partner (her husband and co-founder Damon Knight apparently called his 'Fred'), which is basically the voice of my creative unconscious.  You can't really tell your Silent Partner what to do, from what I understand, but you can tell them to think about stuff, give them problems to solve and images or scenes to string together, and they get back to you when they're ready.

Apparently mine is most interested in this right now.  Which works for me, I think.  I mean, it would probably be good if I could focus in on revising my short stories, since those are easier to find markets for.  But if there's one thing I learned at Clarion, it's that I'm not really a short story writer.  It's not that I don't think I can do it so much as the things I naturally gravitate toward writing are longer-form, because my brain gets all excited and wants to pack all these interesting ideas into whatever I'm working on (which is one reason I've been working on GoATDaD for so long without having ever completed a draft).  I might could write flash fiction every now and again (my most successful Clarion story was only about 1000 words; its current form is only 750 or so), but for the most part, I think I am a novel- or at least novella-length writer, which I'm okay with.

Looking at where my head's at right now, it seems like what I want to do is to work out how to turn that last story into a 60-80K word novel, which is long enough for me to have room to stretch out and play around in, but short enough that it won't get away from me, and something that, if I really put my mind to it, I could plan out and get a draft of in a few months (say 4-6).  It's totally not what the plan was, but one of the things I learned at Clarion is that when you're really excited about writing something, and it's easy and fun, then that's the thing your creative unconscious wants to be working on, and that's the thing you should do.  So I think that's what I'm going to do, even though it's totally not what I thought I would or should be doing right now.

More Words to Live By

You carry either arms or drugs, but not both at the same time.
-Roberto Bolaño, 2666 p 492