Saturday, March 19, 2005

A Special Kind of Crazy

After watching some professional writers' blogs for a while, I have noticed some common threads. Stress over deadlines, stress over finances, driving one's self through sickness and life distractions to meet obligations to publishers. You have be a special kind of crazy to want to do this.

So why do successful writers do this to themselves? What's the payoff? Being crazy means not seeing the world in the same way as "normal" people. It means living in a different reality. This special kind of craziness allows writers to live in a reality in which there really is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and which allows them to follow the rainbow to its end.

Question: If you find a pot of gold, how come so much stress about money? Answer: Not all that is golden is spendable on material needs. Illustration: Tor Books rushed a special printing of a single copy of her last novel, Three Hands of Scorpio, so Andre Norton would have a chance to hold it in her hands before she died.

Writing brings its practitioners intangible rewards. Few, very few, get any substantial financial benefit from their writing, but intangibles make a big difference. Quality of life is far more important than most people realize. I have learned that I can survive on little money and still get enjoyment out of life. I get to scratch that psychic itch that drives me to create with words. I get to see the world in ways that are far richer and deeper than the great mass of people can imagine. One day, I hope to hold in my hands the physical culmination of years of work and worry and stress. One day, I hope that I will know that my words have at least a small chance of reaching other people. Maybe they will change someone's life for the better, and I will have improved the world in some small way. What more could I hope for?

Popping the Safety Valve

A lot on my mind today. I'll do 2 posts so Good Carter and Bad Carter can each have their say. It's only fair. First, 2 rants. Do 2 rants make a rave? Anyway, here's a word from our sponsor.

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Cruel and Unusual

Terry Schiavo's feeding tude has been removed. Now we just wait until she starves to death. I actually think she will die of dehydration. This is too much for me.

There is a huge difference between letting someone die and making someone die. I am a firm believer in the right to die with dignity. Living wills are the best step in that direction that this country has ever taken. However. Allowing a non-funtional body to die and forcing a fully functional body to die are very much separate issues. The first is humane and makes sense. The second is usually defined as murder.

Who will be charged with Terry Schiavo's death? Her husband? Her doctor? The nurse who actually removed the feeding tube? The judge who ordered her to be killed? What did she ever do to deserve to be tortured to death? We treat our pets better than this. If you starve a dog or cat to death, you can be charged with a felony and put in prison. Is a human life worth less? Worthless?

All else being equal, if she could sit up and drink from a straw, this issue would never have arisen. If she was no longer able to sit up but could still drink, would food and water be withheld from her? Where is that line? At what point does life end? If a body still functions, even without signs of consciousness, is it alive? We're in some very murky water, here, and caution is definitely called for. It's a very small step from here to considering incorrigible criminals to be hopelessly brain-damaged. Then we can lock them into cells and forget about them. Just come back in 6 weeks and gather up the bones.

I think Terry Schiavo deserves at least as much consideration as a mass murderer. If you're going to kill her, at least do it with compassion and humanity. Drugs are available that will let her ease on out of this world without pain. Is there anybody involved in this case that has big enough balls to admit to what they're doing and at least try to make it right?

On Ethics, Morals, and the Day Job

This rant inspired by recent frustrations and aggravations at work.

Payment for service rendered implies a contract. That is the law. If you accept someone's money, you are contracting to perform certain services for them, and they have the right to set the rules under which those services are to be performed. If you don't like the rules, don't take the money. Once you take the money, you are committed; it's too late to back out. Just ask Judas Iscariot.

Any employer worth their salt will have a Mission Statement that defines their aims and ambitions. Every employee has a responsibility to uphold that Mission Statement and to do the best they can to fulfill it. When you accept your employer's money, you are agreeing to put aside your personal business and adopt an attitude of cooperation and a work ethic appropriate to the job you are being paid to do.

Unfortunately, all too often the upper levels of administration have a tendency to ignore the written mission and concentrate on other issues. This attitude infects the whole system faster than the flu virus. When the administration places its biggest emphasis on bringing in money, the educational values of the institution wither and will eventually die. The purpose of a school is first and foremost to serve the educational needs of its students. Period. Everything else is secondary. Decisions made without considering this are guaranteed to have detrimental side effects. Ignoring those effects has both short-term and long-term consequences.

People, if you're not going to serve the needs of the students, get the hell out of education!

Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Downward Spiral

Here I go again. I've been trying to fight it off all week, but I guess it's time for my semi-annual "episode". Every day I get more lethargic, more emotionally fragile. I'm irritable, and the dreams get worse every night. My synapses are clogged with Jell-o, and my thoughts move with the speed and grace of a three-toed sloth. It's twilight; darkness will fall soon.

Damn, I hate this! I feel completely helpless. Hell, I am completely helpless. That blck, stinking muck just keeps sucking me down. Slowly, inevitably down. I'm scared that one of these days, I'll sink, and I won't be able to come back up.

I'm rigging for silent running, and I may disappear for a few days. If this gets much worse, I will need to concentrate on just maintaining from day to day, or from hour to hour. A couple of times, I have had to just try to make to the next breath. That's hard. I have to constantly keep distracting my mind to keep it from considering its options. I don't need to be making life decisions when I am emotionally impaired and mentally blind.

I have to spend some hours this weekend searching for any specific issues that I can find that might have triggered this and try to deal with them. That's tough, too. I have so damned many issues it's hard to tell which ones are currently bugging me the most.

The potential silver lining: sometimes I get some great story ideas.

A sad goodbye

Andre Norton died today in Murfreesboro, TN. She was 93. Last Friday, she was able to hold a copy of her last novel in her hands. She liked the cover.

My first exposure to Ms. Norton's writing was Moon of Three Rings. I first read it in elementary school and have loved it since. I still get it out and reread it every few years. She really had a way with words. There was beauty in every sentence. She left a mark on the world that few have or will equal.

Thank you, Ms. Norton, for sharing your beauty with us.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

May you get what you want and not what you deserve.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Fishers of Men

A recent discussion on fantasist about the texture of stories and how different people generatetheir stories in different ways led my mind to "wander lonely as a cloud" down twisty byways as it is wont to do.

Creative people of all stripes share common goals but develop uniquely different methods of reaching them. Creativity is much like fishing. While I would use a Zebco rod and reel combo (cheap and reliable), someone else might opt for a surf-casting rig or a fly rod, or a gill net. Similarly, one will catch salmon, one catfish, another squid or shad or conch or lobster, even kelp for the vegetarians among us. Each of us then prepares our catch with our greatest skill, using our talents and exquisite care to produce a product for public consumption. Each artist is unique, but we all fish in the same streams and rivers, the same ponds and lakes and oceans. Call it the "collective unconscious" if you like, or a common mythology.

One of the biggest hurdles a writer must overcome is finding his or her "path with a heart". It certainly was for me. Of course, I was laboring under the load of an awful lot of formal education as well. I was trained in the "right" way to think, the "right" way to write, the "right" things to see and the "right" way to interpret them. Real writing is not like that. I am unable to force myself into someone else's mold. In writing, "right" and "wrong" are very slippery concepts that have no real definitions, only individual interpretations.

Education and low self-respect have really held me back. I like to follow the rules. I like to learn from the experts. I like things explained to me in black and white. All this gray smoke and fog confuses me, and I feel very lost. I often feel like I'm an imposter. I'm not doing this right, I can't be, I don't know how. Where's the map? Where are the signs? How far is it to Kalamazoo?

There's no map. The only signs are smudged and point in different directions anyway. How far to anywhere depends on what route I take. AAAUUUGGGHHHHH!

I'm feeling my way. I haven't fallen off a cliff yet, so I'll keep going. Maybe one day I will develop the ability to detect the Earth's magnetic field or whatever it takes to navigate this business effectively. In the meantime, please excuse me while I wander around.

Speaking of wandering, how in the hell did I get here from where I started?

Sidetracked

I fell under the spell of The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats and have done absolutely nothing productive, just basked under the sunlamp of a great Irish poet. I guess that's OK on a cold, rainy day.

One passage in particular sparked a train of thought:

For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle,
And the merry love to dance;

-- from "The Fiddler of Dooney"

Hmmmm. Yeats must have lived on a different planet than I do. In my reality the good, or the ones who think they're good, are far too often dour, judgemental, and just plain unhappy. That thought led to another rant, but I'll leave it alone for now. Yeats beckons.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Le Sacre du Printemps

Forsythia and jonquils explode yellow against a dull brown landscape, robins pass by on their way north, lazy warm days lead to cozy cool nights. Ah, Springtime in the South, the time of year when a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of--fire?

Yes, the smell of wood smoke fills the air in a noxious gray cloud. Firetrucks scream and groan as they respond. It's now officially Spring. I know that because my neighbor lit the woods on fire this morning. It's been an annual tradition for nearly 20 years. I don't know if it's laziness or just an inability to understand that drives him, but he cannot understand that burning off the weeds and leaves and pine needles in his yard triggers a mystical union between fire and dry woods. If you know any volunteer firemen, give them a pat on the back for me. I don't know how they keep from killing this idiot.

I often feel like Miniver Cheevy, except I feel born out of place. I have never been able to fit the redneck's overpowering obsession with fire into my psyche. Burning is de rigeur whenever two or more are gathered. When Joe and the crew built our deck some years back, I could never quite get across to them that I would really prefer that they not build a whacking great bonfire 15 feet from my house every morning. On a windy day. When we had had no rain for a week. I guess they thought I was some kind of wierdo. You just can't please everybody.

Breaking in new software

I have had Prose installed for weeks, now, but I've never really poked at it much. I fired it up this morning and began to do my character development in its Character Creator module. It's pretty cool. Asks a lot of prying questions into the character's personality type, strengths and weaknesses (and their consequences for the other characters and the story), the requisite physical description, etc.

I'm going to take a look at the Setting Creator and the Scene Creator as well. This appears to be a fairly complete package, and the only cost is your donation to either your local foodbank or to tsunami relief. A real win-win situation. I'll report back as I go.

Oh, it also exports its files to RTF, so I can pull them into Word for final formatting and printing.

Taking a break

I have put WITB on hold for a couple of days so I can work on "Wolf Moon". I need to get it done and out the door by the 31st if I'm going to keep up my goal of one story finished and submitted every month this year. Even though I'm currently 2 stories ahead, I have to consider those 2 as over and above my quota. No room for laziness here. WITB will remain in my thoughts, but my words belong to the Vikings.

I'll have a couple of days off next week during quarter break (according to the State of Georgia, New Year's Day falls on March 25 this year) so I should be able to get a lot done.

The Neverending Story

The Great Landscaping Saga continues, as it will for ages yet to come. Got my glider set up under the pecan tree. Now I'm moving dirt around the edges so I can lay down some brick pavement.

There are still vinca major, phlox, dianthus, and erysimum to set out, as well. My goal is to get a little done every day. Take the long view. Just wait 'til next year. Etc. I can maintain a feeling of accomplishment if I can say every evening: "It looks just a little bit better today."

Bok choi was a bust in the vegetable garden. It bolted to seed as soon as I set it out. It's probably too hot in the spring. Broccoli is looking good. We should be harvesting by the end of the month. The tomatoes have germinated. I'm still waiting on the squash and cucumbers. I have an old box springs that I plan to turn into a cage for pole beans to climb on. Reduce, reuse, and recycle. That has become a mantra for us since we slid back to the edge of poverty. You do what you must.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Readers in the Hands of an Angry Writer

Every story has critical plot points, but the horror story has one point that overrides all points of style and structure. In the horror story there is always one single point at which the writer has a choice: stay safe of go for the gusto.

I was watching The 100 Scariest Movie Moments on Bravo over the weekend. One of the top moments was the one from Misery where Kathy Bates puts a block of wood between James Caan's ankles and then whacks his left ankle with a sledghammer. Even though the audience knows that this is not really happening, the sight of that foot flopping like a fish in the bottom of a boat always draws a gasp. It's not just the thought of the man's pain or the graphic depiction of the woman's violently insane obsession. That is a pivotal moment in the story. That is the moment when you realize fully and without any remaining doubt that you have placed yourself in the hands of a madman.

The same is true for short stories and novels. I am constantly being disappointed when a writer brings the character or cast to a point of crisis and then lets them off the hook. At that point, I know I can relax and sit back for some mindless entertainment, because this writer does not have the guts to dig for the truth. Far, far too often, I know very early on in a story that everything will come out alright in the end. The hero will get the girl (or vice-versa) and save the world. There's no suspense, only a curiosity as to how that will happen.

Readers are not bystanders watching me play with puppets for their amusement. My responsibility does not end with drawing the reader into my world. It also includes entering into their world, getting into their minds, finding the tender spots and poking them. Hard. Horror stories should not just entertain; they should horrify. One of my aims as a horror writer is to inflict pain on my readerr--to scare them, terrify them, horrify them, to leave them unsettled and feeling unsafe and unsure of the boudaries of their realities, to make them think about what good and evil really are. That's an awesome responsibility, and it often frightens me, but it's one I gladly take on and do my best to discharge.

Bait and switch

I wrote previously about maintaining the reader's trust. The plot structure of Washed in the Blood is evolving in such a way that I may have to push the boudaries on that a little bit. No deus ex machina, certainly, and no Wizard behind the curtain pulling levers, but possibly a little misdirection, a hint in the early scenes that this may hurt a little, but everything will work out. Then the monster steps out of the darkness, and hope dies.

The idea I am currently toying with is that the story will open on Maggie's indiscretion with Thomas. The early part will focus on her struggle to come to terms with that and what she will tell John, if anything, when he gets home. Not until they are deeply mired in that swamp will the monster actually appear as a monster and the focus turns to John. The trick will be to make this switch in such a way that the reader will gladly follow along and not feel cheated or step back and say: "Gee, that was an intersting effect". It may require a slow fade from one character to the other. I'm waiting on the Muse to lead me on this.

By doing things this way, I aim to build up a deep attachment to John and Maggie in the reader. Then comes the moment of truth, the moment I referred to earlier in which I reveal myself as a madman who is going to do his best to wrest your soul from your body and beat you on the head with it. Welcome to my mind. Abansdon all hope, ye who enter here.

Jesus wept

The Passion of the Christ, Recut has been released, and another illusion crumbles into dust. Mel Gibson has now lost my respect. It always saddens and infuriates me to see another hypocrite exposed. Mr. Gibson claims to have been inspired to make the original of this movie and maintained that he would remain true to his vision in spite of the controversy. Now he shows his true colors, and the main one is green.

Money talks; bullshit walks, Mr. Gibson. Dollars speak loudly. Did you castrate your film in order to serve God or to serve Mammon? Will you now also release a new version that answers the anti-Semitism charges still being thrown your way? Maybe a sanitized version that can be shown in Sunday School? Don't try to blow smoke up my butt. I've been around with some of the best in the business. Bullshit grows pretty roses, but you'll never convince me that it smells and tastes good.

Mr. Gibson claims to be devout and to follow the Christian Scriptures as the literal Word of God. Listen to these words: "By their fruits you shall know them." I know you now.

Speaking of fruits, what have you done with the hundreds of millions of dollars that you have already collected on this film and on the related products? How many of those dollars have wound up in the hands of those who need them? How many have you clothed and fed and sheltered? Maybe you should reread Matthew 25:31-46.

I make no claim to be a devout Christian, far from it. I find far too many faults in Christianity to give it more than the respect I give to any religion. It's the hypocrisy that burns my butt. It's the ham-handed attempt to manipulate prople who truly do believe in Christianity in order to fleece them of their money. That's not right. It's not only not right, it's downright evil. Mel Gibson will be held to account for his cynicism and self-aggrandizing one day. If he's right, and the Christian God is the one true God, he'll be in for a long, hot time.