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NaNoWriMo 2017: A Success

December 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Do you know what I like best about National Novel Writing Month? It really forces me to take the time to sit down and get a new idea out of my head and on paper. Well, not really paper but you get the idea. So far I’ve managed to get out four novels of at least 50,000 words. They’re not complete by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re really good starts for ideas that I’ve wanted to develop for years. Life gets in the way sometimes, you know?

I have a notebook full of ideas that I want to develop into novels or short stories, and the latest story I wrote from NaNoWriMo was taken from it. I think I’m up to 67 ideas that I’ve come up with? Either way, if I come up with an idea that I think is worth remembering and developing, and I don’t have time to work on it right then, I write it down in that notebook to get back to later. I called it “Zombie Projects,” because they’ll come back from the dead some day.

After two years of not participating in NaNoWriMo I managed to hit the 50,000 word mark on my fourth novel, and I did it in about 28 days. Technically it is actually 21 days since I didn’t write for seven of the days for various reasons. I finished the contest on November 28, with no small amount of relief. I really do love to do this, but it’s a lot of stress and pressure, and I always end up writing many more than 50,000 words because I will completely rewrite entire sections, which means that I probably came closer to writing 75,000 words in 21 days.

The story I wrote–and am currently in the process of writing, still–is called The Road That Leads Home. If you want to see the details of the novel as they exist on my NaNoWriMo profile, you can click here. There’s a brief synopsis (which needs to be updated a bit), and a rough draft excerpt of one of the important parts of the novel.

So what is it about? Well, I had this idea to write a science fiction novel about a half-human / half-alien girl who had to grow up on Earth, surrounded by people who hated her for merely being only half-human. For the longest time I had no idea how to approach it, but two things really fell into place that helped to finally launch it. The first was attending a panel at the science fiction convention Escape Velocity, in which one of the panelists asked if we could get into touch with the “other” within ourselves in way that doesn’t honor our humanity or humanism, but changes and transforms us. In other science fiction aliens embrace the human within them or human ideals to resolve conflicts of identity.

Take, for instance, Commander Spock from Star Trek. His cold, logical alien demeanor is constantly pitted against the empathetic humanism of Doctor McCoy. Conflicts between them, and those of identity that Spock experiences personally, are often resolved by Spock getting in touch with his human side, and holding as a virtue the ideals of humanism. It seems as if Spock needs to abandon his alien parts. Aliens in science fiction are meant to destabilize our own identities, to throw our own views of ourselves into question. We can use them to analyze our behavior and our philosophies, but because we think so inwardly when we think of aliens we never really imagine something truly alien.

My story was not an attempt to imagine something truly alien, but to look at the development of Spock and say, “Huh. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a character who specifically rejected humanity and humanism?” Could we maybe use that as a way to move beyond self-congratulatory–even conceited–celebrations of humanity and explore someone coming to terms with their identity by embracing the otherness within them?

So how do I get there? The second thing that fell into place was attending a lecture by N. Katherine Hayles called “Why We Are Still Posthuman.” I had heard of posthumanism before, but never really explored it in depth apart from one aspect of it called transhumanism. This lecture really helped me to connect to dots that led me to develop the central conceit of The Road That Leads Home. Being human is contingent; it’s an historical and cultural construct. What a human is, and what it takes to be one, changes over time–it’s constantly in flux. Humanism is often constructing and bounded–in the world we live in now, one with cyborgs and Google Glass and other technological wonders, our definition of what makes a human is expanding every day and we’re not even aware of it.

So I wanted to write a story that deconstructs the boundaries in humanism, exposes its limitations and its prejudices, and tries to find something beyond it. In my novel, humans don’t really react well to that, and why should they? They’re being asked to abandon the idea that they have a special place in the universe, or that there’s something special about them in their very nature. The very existence of my protagonist is one that is a threat to them and any philosophy that puts humans front and center.

What’s funny is that this is happening today, even as you read these words. It’s unavoidable, and as we explore the impacts of technoscience on how we imagine ourselves and our place in the world. The emergence of new technologies that connect us to each other via social media changed us. The medical science that allows for organ transplantation changed us. The fact that we acknowledge the sentience and intelligence–not to mention rights–of animals besides ourselves is changing us. And this will only accelerate as time goes on. Humanism will not be able to keep up with that, which is why posthuman schools of thought (like transhumanism, for instance) are becoming more attractive to greater numbers of people.

We’re entering a brave new world. I think we should embrace it.

Before I close out this post, I want to include a small excerpt from my current rough draft of The Road That Leads Home. It’s written to be like a biography / autobiography, sourced from different types of media and put together to form a narrative of the life of my protagonist. Her name is Freya Jameson, and the excerpt is televised interview between a journalist and Freya’s fully human brother, Scott. Please keep in mind that this is a rough draft, and as yet contains rather blunt, unsubtle references and language–I’ll clear that up later. I just wanted to get the general scene written.


Charles: Welcome back to Detroit News Now. Sitting with me in the studio is the brother of Freya H’val r’ Earth’van, a member of the first generation of Human Hybrids. Scott, thank you for agreeing to speak with us today.

Scott: No problem, Charles. I’m happy to clear things about and set the record straight.

Charles: It’s good that we’re launching right into this, because I have a hard question right off the bat. What happened to Freya?

Scott: Can you clarify? Lots of things happened to Freya.

Charles: Why did she renounce her humanity and leave Earth?

Scott: Because she wasn’t human.

Charles: It’s a matter of record that she was a Human Hybrid. Her father—

Scott: Let me stop you right there, Chuck. Can I call you Chuck? You call her a Human Hybrid, not a human. Her whole life she was essentially told ‘you’re not really human.’ And people act surprised when she finally agrees with them?

Charles: Don’t you think that’s a little unfair? Not everyone feels that way about them.

Scott: No, absolutely not. You might not have directly caused her harm, but you are part of a media organization that breathlessly and repeatedly reported on the so-called ‘Hybrid Crime Wave.’ Don’t deny it, Chuck. For years you could turn the news on and the first thing you would see is one of your anchors reporting on some minor crime by one of the desperate people that were rejected out of hand by our society, next to some scary graphics, as if they were out in gangs, roaming the streets, murdering people.

Charles: The reporting on those crimes was problematic, yes, but that doesn’t—

Scott: Don’t give me that. You can lie to yourself, but we both know what it was. Tell me, Chuck, did you have to clean up your sister’s busted lip after some jerk broke it open with a rock to the mouth? Did you have to endure the scorn of other people merely for having a sister that was a little different? Did your grandparents tell you that they wish you had died in the womb? Don’t tell me this isn’t about how much we pushed her to that.

Charles: So you’re saying that she blames everyone but herself for what happened to her.

Scott: Excuse me? I’m sorry, it sounded like you were implying that Freya was responsible for what we did to her. Are you going to blame her for almost being raped next?

Charles: What I’m saying is that we know she was radicalized at some point in her early twenties. There is evidence that, for a time, she advocated for violent separation from the human race for all Hybrid Humans. Are you denying that she became a public danger?

Scott: Absolutely. See, this is so like you [censored]. She didn’t advocate for a violent separation, and that you’re still claiming that tells me you never actually cared to listen to her.

Charles: Well, then, tell us, Scott. What did she advocate for? What did she mean by, ‘we must free ourselves of the shackles of humanism, forced on us against our will by circumstance of birth. This isn’t a struggle for human rights—a racist term—it’s a struggle for the rights of all thinking and feeling creatures in this Silver River. There will come a time when we all must ask ourselves if we prefer benevolent subjugation under the yoke of humanism or the bullet.’

Scott: Can you finish that quote, please?

Charles: Don’t you want to answer that?

Scott: If you don’t want to finish the quote, I will.

Charles: Answer my question. What did she mean by that?

Scott: I’ll finish the quote.

Charles: Answer my question.

Scott: Don’t interrupt, Chuck. That’s rude. Here we go: ‘…humanism or the bullet. If we can’t free ourselves of the chains imposed upon us by those who would call us Hybrid Humans while denying our humanity, we must cease to be that which we are now, and through the violent revolution of the self, set out on our own. Henry David Thoreau once said that ‘we need the tonic of wildness,’ and I am here to tell you my brothers and sisters of common heritage that we are athirst of home, country, and community. We need to drink of the tonic of wildness and discover our own country in the stars.’ Where do you see a call for violent separation of the human race?

Charles: She literally mentioned a bullet.

Scott: Obviously a reference to Malcolm X’s speech ‘The Ballot or the Bullet.’ The second part of the quote, which you refused to read to your audience—which I find both unethical and dishonest—gave it context. She wasn’t talking about a violent overthrow of government or attacking people in the streets. She was talking about a radical reinvention of the self, embracing the otherness that had for so long been forced on her by us. She said, ‘if we’re to be dismissed as other, let us embrace the otherness. Let us show them it won’t be an albatross around our necks, but an identity. We’ll define ourselves as other than human. I’ll define myself as other than h’tro. What will you drop in order to embrace the otherness in you?’

Charles: And you don’t see how that makes her look bad? You don’t see how that might turn people against her? Doesn’t that, in actuality, confirm people’s feelings about her?

Scott: Do you know what Freya would say to that?

Charles: Please enlighten me.

Scott: She would say that what they fear the most, what they find the most repulsive, is that she turned her back on them—on humanism—and embraced something foreign and strange. It was a rejection of the very thing that they denied her, that they constantly told her she wasn’t good enough to possess. It’s not about her, Chuck. It’s about them. It’s about you and me, and your audience sitting at home. They constantly said that Freya wasn’t like them. All she did was embrace that.


Thank you for reading!

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Red Ink

January 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Red Ink

I have a love / hate relationship with red ink. That seems really cliche, but the fact is that the red pen sits on the table in front me, and I imagine it is taunting me. See, the red pen is both critic and muse; a force for destruction and creation.

The pen sits on a stack of papers, themselves covered in red ink. Scribbles, symbols, lines, and words speak of the surgery I have performed on it. We don’t like tearing apart that which we destroy create. When I was younger, I built castles made of legos, and I dreaded the time I had to take them down. But that force of destruction is also a way to build.

First drafts suck; there’s no way around that. Typically they are nothing more than idea vomit on paper, at least for me. Sometimes my stories go through several revisions (I label these by letter, and the furthest along I’ve ever gotten in the alphabet so far is “H”). I have binders full of drafts–or rather–the dry bones of drafts that are covered in crimson.

I keep them because they’re instructive. I can learn from them, and I can see how my writing evolves over time. And I come to see that the red ink isn’t my enemy, it’s my tutor. Learning isn’t always a fun process. Often we are asked to unlearn things we thought were true, and more often demanded that we venture outside of our comfort zones.

Creativity is fragile, and it must be nurtured. But it is also prone to stagnation, so it must be challenged, not just by others but by ourselves. Maybe the things we create have no value to anyone but ourselves, but the act of creation itself demands change and growth.

An artist refines her techniques, life evolves from generation to generation, and humans learn from their mistakes. Creation and change are on the same coin, and maybe even the same side of that coin.

Musings on Writing in a Cafe

January 17, 2017 Leave a comment

I never really appreciated how sitting in a cafe can be conducive to the creative process before now. Before I saw them as loud, distracting things to avoid. But as I sit here, sipping Earl Grey and writing a book review, it strikes me how human it is. It seems to me that creative endeavors are human endeavors, and human endeavors are typically loud and annoying.

You could drown it all out by putting on headphones, but you miss isolated threads of conversation: “I was thinking…” and “That’s not how you…” What are they talking about, I wonder? The jazz music in the speakers overhead, the atonal beeps of the cash register, the whir of the cappuccino machine–the environment sings with activity, and the melody is alive and pulsing.

People talking, reading, studying–all with their own stories. So just look up and take it in from time to time.

Categories: Life, Musings, Writing Tags: , , ,

Ultimate Book Tag! and Other Things

March 8, 2015 Leave a comment

First things first: I recently got hired at McLaren Greater Lansing as a Nurse Assistant. I am very excited about this job and I am eager to learn more skills. Everyone I’ve met so far at the hospital has been terrific, and I really believe that I’m going to enjoy my time there.

Second things second: I’ve been working for a while on internet stuff for the Clinton County Democratic Party as the IT Specialist. I’ve actually gotten a lot of work done, though by looking at the website you’d never guess it. Still, there are a lot of other factors that go into developing a decent internet presence for a political party than just the website, which is the next big thing to tackle on my seemingly ever-expanding agenda as IT Specialist.

And now, Ultimate Book Tag! I took this from Jackie Smith’s blog A Platform of Sorts. I haven’t written here in a while because life has been busy, so I thought I’d make this post fun.

1. Do you get sick while reading in the car?

Nope. I’ve read in cars for as long as I remember, and never had any problems with it. Even now, when I’m a passenger in a car and reading my Kindle, it doesn’t bother me.

2. Which author’s writing style is completely unique to you and why?

Douglas Adams. Hands down. And it’s not just his writing style, but how turns my expectations on their head. For instance, when describing the Vogon ships in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he writes, “They hung in the air much the same way bricks don’t.” His writing style influences my fiction writing in ways too numerous to count.

My general rule of thumb, thanks to Adams, is “when in doubt, give everything an inner voice. Even composite board bookshelves.”

3. Harry Potter Series or the Twilight Saga? Give 3 points to defend your answer.

Harry Potter:

a. It’s not Twilight.

b. It’s more original.

c. It’s not Twilight.

4. Do you carry a book bag? If so, what is it in (besides books…)?

I carry a book bag when I need to. I’ll either put my notebooks, folders, computer, or papers in it. I tend to keep all of the papers for my writing projects organized into folders or binders.

5. Do you smell your books?

Who doesn’t like the smell of wood pulp?

6. Books with or without little illustrations?

It really depends on the book, doesn’t it? Sometimes an illustration adds to the narrative in complex or unexpected ways, and that’s very refreshing.

7. What book did you love while reading but discovered later it wasn’t quality writing?

A Song of Ice and Fire–the entire series. The stories are engrossing, complex, original–but Martin’s prose is atrocious. He can spend three pages describing what someone is eating and I just want to tear those pages out to get on with the damn story. His saving graces are the realistic characters he invents and his willingness to go places most writers fear to tread.

8. Do you have any funny stories involving books from your childhood? Please share!

I used to build tunnels with my books so my model trains could go through them. That’s not really that funny, but it’s all I’ve got.

9. What is the thinnest book on your shelf?

The Trial and Death of Socrates, translated by G. M. A. Grube.

IMG_057410. What is the thickest book on your shelf?

It was a close contest, but the winner was The Norton Shakespeare, Second Edition.

IMG_0575 IMG_0576This brick ends on page 3416.

11. Do you write as well as read? Do you see yourself in the future as being an author?

Yes, I love to write, and I do see myself being a published author in the future. It might take a while, what this this life thing, but I do love writing. If you want to preview some of my short fiction, head on over to my other blog, Fictional Heuristics.

12. When did you get into reading?

I still have my copy of Itchy Itchy Chicken Pox from when I was a kid.

13. What is your favorite classic book?

Ofer-hyda ne gym, maere cempa!

Beowulf.

14. In school was your best subject Language Arts/English?

Yes, actually. I won awards for my screenwriting, for being an outstanding writer, and I entered writing contests all of the time. It really wasn’t a surprise when I decided to major in English.

15. If you were given a book as a present that you had read before and hated…what would you do?

I would express my opinion of the book in a friendly way, but keep it in my collection. It’s why I haven’t thrown away Ayn Rand books.

16. What is a lesser known series that you know of that is similar to
Harry Potter or the Hunger Games?

I don’t think I know of one. I haven’t actually read The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series is pretty much a one-off for me in young adult fantasy.

17. What is your favorite word?

Queue. Look how funny it is. I want to pronounce it que-ue.

18. Are you a nerd, dork, or dweeb? Or all of the above?

I’m a geek. I have models of the Enterprise and the time machine from Back to the Future. I have so much Isaac Asimov it poses a small fire hazard.

19. Vampires or Fairies? Why?

I’d go with vampires for no other reason than I think Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a good book.

20. Shapeshifters or Angels? Why?

Shapeshifters are more interesting. Plus, Odo.

odo-in-tux21. Spirits or Werewolves? Why?

Neither. Boring. Overdone. Next?

22. Zombies or Vampires? Why?

Zombies, because if you can make a zombie movie like George Romero that offers up a critique of consumerism in American culture, you can make on out of a book. Max Brooks comes close.

23. Love Triangle or Forbidden Love?

Neither. Boring, cliche, just…come up with something more original.

24. AND FINALLY: Full on romance books or action-packed with a few love scenes mixed in?

If a choice between the two? The latter. I can deal with love subplots if they’re done right. Romance isn’t my thing.

Well, that was fun! I hope that everyone has had a great International Women’s Day!

NaNoWriMo 2014

January 13, 2015 2 comments

I almost decided not to participate in the National Novel Writing Month this year. I missed over a week of writing time due to the elections (I was very busy for the first few weeks of November taking care of campaign-related issues). At the last minute, I decided that I would give it a try.

I chose to write a fantasy story that I came up with by accident. I can’t remember the exact details, but I was playing some kind of game with a group of my friends, and due to my sloppy handwriting, they read the title of a fantasy novel I might write wrongly. Thus, Ser Darkthor’s Court was born; a novel about a Knight Errant who travels the realm and solves crimes. It was envisioned as sort of a Sword and Sorcery version of Sherlock Holmes.

Here’s the synopsis that I put up on NaNoWriMo when I started to write it:

Jesper is a class of Knight Errant called a Red Moon. They are tasked with policing the realm of Ser Darkthor, First of His Name, Honorable and Wise Leader of (Insert Name of Place Here). Jesper’s travels take him to a small village which appears peaceful on the surface, but hides a dark secret that could change the balance of power or something like that. Jesper begins an investigation in a Sherlock Holmes-meets-medieval fantasy novel, and uncovers a conspiracy that does something. I’ll flesh it out. It’ll be great. I promise.

The story, obviously, is much more developed now. Th good news is that I plugged away for the three weeks that I participated and I managed to win! Yay! It’s the third time in a row that I’ve won, and it always feels like I’ve climbed a mountain or explored a new planet.

I’m going to finish this story, clean it up, and probably serialize it on my fiction blog, Fictional Heuristics. Look out for that when it happens, because I happen to think it is an interesting story. It’s not the best fantasy, and I might have borrowed a teensy too much from Scott Lynch and George R.R. Martin, but I had a lot of fun writing it and I definitely think it is worth sharing.

I’ve actually thought about starting a patreon or something similar to that in case people wanted to chip in a few bucks if they like my fiction. I don’t have a lot of time to write, but if I can make some money doing it I’d carve out a niche for it. I think that’s something to think about for the future, if I can ever manage to get around to doing half the things that I say that I want to do.

Anyway, I hope that my fellow writers found success with NaNoWriMo last year, and I hope they continue to find success in the coming years.

A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty-Four: Xenobiology

April 28, 2014 1 comment

I had a busy day so I just wanted to briefly touch on an idea I had to write a book on alien biology and anatomy as if it were a real book.

This idea first occurred to me when I was thinking of a realistic physiological explanation as to the green color of Spock’s blood. I want to write a kind of Grey’s Anatomy for aliens.

Anyway, that’s all I have tonight. Thanks for reading!

The Challenges of Writing Part 2; or, Why Did I Ever Decide to Do This? (The Reckoning)

March 5, 2014 Leave a comment
This sea of red is a familiar sight on my rough drafts

This sea of red is a familiar sight on my rough drafts.

Okay, hyperbolic titles aside (for now), the last few weeks have seen me mired in pages of rough draft material in need of either a red pen or an X-ACTO knife (for when something has really got to go). The above picture is illustrative of the plight of the poor author. The story, which I had originally written a few years ago as a “writing exercise” in a creative writing class, is called “Fiction.” Before I took my red pen to it, the story focused on a technique called “framing,” which ask.com defines as “the usage of the identical distinct action, scene, event, setting or any element of significance at both the beginning and end of a creative, musical or literary work.”

In the case of “Fiction,” the framing technique makes use of an unfinished short story to drive the main narrative in the real story forward. I borrowed the idea from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in which Captain Walton creates a narrative frame through the use of his letters, which itself is called epistolary form. Seeking to add my own unique twist to the framing technique was only obvious, and I feel as if I pulled it off convincingly enough.

The red ink you see in the picture comes from the lack of good characters and a sensible plot within the narrative. And that was the main problem with “Fiction.” It didn’t have believable or interesting characters. I’ll be uploading the finished version of this series of rough drafts (I completed three, each with less red ink than the one before) to my fiction blog “Fictional Heuristics” soon.

I have a love/hate relationship with the editing process. I love writing, from putting the words on the page to making a polished final product. I hate that I have a compulsion to seek perfection in a work. There’s always one more thing that can be tweaked. One more sentence that can be improved. I’ve worked over the years to let it go, and I’m getting better at declaring a story finished. Still, the novel-writing process has stirred new concerns in my editor’s soul.

I was recently making notes for a review I’ll write eventually about Jacqueline E. Smith’s debut novel “Cemetery Tours.” I was jotting notes about writing and narrative style when I realized that one of the constructive criticisms I had made applied to a recent draft of the prologue of my novel.

This isn’t that unusual. Editing your own material is hard work, and I don’t often spot my own mistakes in style. One of the traps that writers fall into is becoming complacent with their word use. Things like beginning multiple sentences in a row with the same word, or using so-called telling words instead of properly describing a scene. In the case of my novel, I was using the word “she” too many times, and didn’t even realize how often I had used the generic word “smiled” at various points in the eight page, 2,500-word prologue.

There are a few ways to catch things like this in your writing. To avoid the repetition of words, keep a list of commonly used words like “some,” “said,” or different kinds of pronouns at the start of sentences, and within sentences. It’s a lot of work, but it really does help reveal how often you use certain words.

Describing a scene properly usually involves avoiding to be verbs like “is,” “was,” and “are” in any tense. For instance, a sentence like “He was concerned about his friend” has the effect of dragging the reader out of a narrative because you’re just passing on information. Keep the reader grounded in the narrative by changing that sentence to something like, “He pursed his lips and swallowed hard as his friend recounted…” By showing the emotion, and not just telling the reader “he was concerned,” you keep them grounded in the novel and allow them to empathize with the character.

Of course, describing the emotion and trying to avoid labeling it is hard work, especially because we often just associate facial cues with the emotion without describing what’s happening to the face. When someone is “angry” you have a pretty good idea about what they look like. If you write about how “his face, red and contorted, threatened violence” you might need more context for the reader to understand the emotion you’re trying to convey.

You’re looking mighty angry there, Spock. Guess Vulcans have the same facial cues as humans.

Another issue that comes up fairly often is the lack of grounding in the setting. You’re creating a world, full of exciting characters and challenging problems and…you forget to keep the reader in that world by neglecting to describe it or forgetting to use the setting after you’ve set it. There’s a world of difference between “She looked him in the eye, tears streaming down her face” as the whole sentence, and grounding the characters in their setting: “Her gaze met his, and he was unable to hear her whimper over the noise of the cappuccino machine and a customer dropping loose change.”

So maybe that’s not the best example, but it illustrates the point well. Your characters live in a world. Use it.

So what’s the point of doing all of that extra work? It’s arduous, thankless, and more than once it’s driven me to consider taking up the noble art of smashing things with hammers.

I believe that the ability to look back and see your evolution as a writer is paramount in the ongoing struggle to constantly improve your writing. Keep the rough drafts with all of the red ink, and keep the lists of words and the notes you’ve made about your mistakes and stylistic shortcomings.

This handsome volume contains rough drafts that have been rewritten. It's useful to go back and look at them if I'm curious to see the pattern of a story's development or old writing mistakes.

This handsome volume contains rough drafts that have been rewritten. It’s useful to go back and look at them if I’m curious to see the pattern of a story’s development or old writing mistakes.

When I'm currently working on a draft, I keep them together with paperclips. They'll eventually go into the binder when I've retyped the draft. I flipped the top one over because it's top secret.

When I’m currently working on a draft, I keep them together with paperclips. They’ll eventually go into the binder when I’ve retyped the draft. I flipped the top one over because it’s top secret.

Don’t let a passion for writing and telling stories decay into lazy sentences. Make your characters vibrant with adjectives, make their emotions empathetical by describing them instead of labeling them, and bring your world to life by constantly grounding the reader in it. Holding your own feet to the fire is a constant challenge, and sometimes writing something just the right way can distract from ultimately telling the story, but a reader will appreciate the extra work.

And in the end, you’ll see your skills improve.