Writing I Read When I’m Feeling Bad About My Writing

There are times I look at the product I’m putting out and there’s just no pretending. It’s not that good. Other times I read something I used to think was good and it turns out to be a disaster of poor communication. At times like that, it’s easy to think I suck. Not just think it, to know it to the core of my being. I suck. Suck, suck, suck! Nothing I write is any good and I’m just wasting my life trying to make a living at something I suck at.

It’s not a pretty thing.

It’s hard to work when you are absolutely certain you suck. What I need at times like that is some glimmer of hope that maybe, sometimes, on the best of days, a brief moment of not-sucking is possible, a fleeting flirtation with not-so-bad that can fuel the hope I need to create the next hyperbolic, rambling train wreck.

A long time ago, on one of my first-ever golf outings, I hit a magically beautiful shot. Now I think of that shot as I search through the cactus for my wayward ball. Most of my shots end up in painful places, but there’s always that one… Likewise, when I’m scrounging through the rough trying to find any reason to keep working on a story and by extension keep working at being a writer, I think of the good shots I’ve hit in my day. Those are the stories I go back and read when I need to get myself back to the happy place.

I’m nervous when people around me are reading my work, but last year I was with my dad as he read “The Tourist“. “That’s really good,” he said. I’m not sure it stands alone; it’s better I’m sure if you’re familiar with other Tin Can stories, but I read that and it still gets me. I really like that story. Oddly, I have a hard time putting my finger on why.

The story that started the series, that the good folk at Piker Press had to call to my attention, was “Tin Can“. It’s a simple story, but subtle enough it fooled me for a while.

Then there’s Crazy Blood. It’s been rejected, so maybe others don’t see what I see in it, but I read it tonight and I have to say that I am on occasion surprised at my own word choice. I haven’t the slightest idea who might pay me money for this story. Crazy Blood might appeal to no one but me, which begs the question of whether it’s an example of writing that demonstrates that I have what it takes to be a professional, but that’s OK.

A user of Jer’s Novel Writer sent me a message after reading “Serpent“. The title of the message was was “Holy Crap!” I was already happy with that one, but that unsolicited feedback didn’t hurt. It’s a cool story, a little clunky in spots I think now, but with a sweet conclusion. It will definitely and appear in my “Piker Years” anthology, after a couple of minor tweaks.

And the novel, The Monster Within, awaiting the latest set of revisions to make it something others can love as much as I do. I wrote the damn thing and I’ve never got tired of it.

Usually, when I’m feeling that every word I write is worthless drivel, I can read some of the above and tell myself, “no, only most of what I write is worthless drivel.” That seems to be enough to keep me going.

Some Pictures I Took

Harlean Carpenter, photographed by Jerry Seeger

Harlean Carpenter, photographed by Jerry Seeger

Harlean Carpenter, the woman behind PoeticPinup.com, has a new photo gallery up. The big news about this particular gallery is that I’m the photographer. Yep, that’s right, I pulled out my big ol’ camera and entered the world of fashion photography. Some of the pictures came out pretty well, thanks mostly to the experience of the model knowing what she wanted and how to get it. Still, every once in a while I came up with some good advice.

I learned quite a bit while I was at it. I’ll have more opportunities to work with Harlean, and hopefully over time my skills will improve. Also, someday I might have better lights and a better tripod. Crazy!

Harlean Carpenter is a fiction created to create fiction. She is also a pinup model, though still a fiction.

Habits

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been living with my sweetie, an arrangement that takes some getting used to for all concerned. It’s also an opportunity. What I do for the next few weeks will likely form patterns that shape the rest of my life. No pressure or anything.

Generally I’m a pretty agreeable guy, not a bad roommate overall, but I can be lazy. I like having someone take care of me, and the love of my life enjoys doing it. Over fifty years, however, that could get old, so I’ve tried to find a couple of things I can do to make life go more smoothly, like drying and putting away the dishes. That one is fun because we’re in the kitchen together, and it’s something that doesn’t have a lot of “you’re doing it wrong!” potential (at least once I figure out where everything goes).

That and I carry stuff. Hm… maybe I need to find a couple more.

Other new habits I’ve inherited. I now work out three times a week. It still seems a little odd to me to stay indoors walking on a treadmill when it’s a nice day for a walk outside, but the exercise excursion is a group thing, which means I actually do it, rather than idly think about what a nice day it would be to take a walk.

Diet has also changed dramatically. Where I would prepare myself a dish, my best friend makes meals, complete with the healthy parts. Friuts consumption is way up, and also leafy greens. Even… broccoli. A while back my girlfriend said, “if I could change one thing about you, it would be to have you like broccoli.” Considering all my other warts, it was pretty generous of her to put that at the top of the list, so I figured I’d give the nasty things another shot. And you know what? Add broccoli to the list of things that should never be cooked. Whoever first cooked the stuff and then did it again knowing the result is a sick individual. I won’t say that the broc is my favorite veggie or that I go out of my way to get the biggest chunks in the salad bowl, but I’ll eat the stuff and know that it’s making me healthier and my sweetheart happier.

Tonight is steak, with other stuff, and a big bowl of salad that we share after the main meal. The salad part is a new tradition that I really like. It’s healthy and fun! Now we just have to break the bad habit of watching tv late and sleeping too late in the mornings. It’s just so nice hanging out together in the evenings, eating salad or other snacks, and enjoying the company.

So here I am, a dish-towel-totin’, broccoli-eatin’ dude, in charge of opening the wine. Don’t worry, though. I still say ‘hefti’ after I belch.

Rough Cut

Today I got my first look at Moonlight Sonata footage, a rough cut that gives a general feel for how the thing will look, but also demonstrates that we have a long way to go to get to the finished product. We had planned to have the opening shot be a long, continuous steady-cam shot, but as fuego has combed through the takes it seems we don’t have one that really works from start to end. That’s not a disaster; there is plenty of footage to make Paul’s entrance into the café a nervous and disorienting time. Not all the takes in this cut are the ones I remember most fondly from shooting, but it’s about making all the parts work together.

Man, I sure wish we’d had more extras.

The cut did not even include the concert scene, so I don’t know how that is going to work, and the voiceovers aren’t there and the walking through Prague and all the audio post, so at this point all I can really report is that there are shots that look fantastic. The voiceover raw files are on their way to me; and I will be going through them and picking out the best takes over the next few days, and putting the bits together into seamless delivery. It’s a job that can take as much time as I’m willing to give it.

Cowboy Bob reflects on the contents of his glass

Cowboy Bob reflects on the contents of his glass

The underground bar looks great. Really really great. I was worried about the video noise I was seeing but at least on the version I have (far from big-screen quality but pretty good for a computer monitor) the noise is not a problem. Using the real audio and getting the music in comes much later, so I’m trying to not worry about that too much (yet).

A long way to go, but so far, so good!

The Three Books I’ve Read Written by Dan Brown

As another big-budget movie based on a Dan Brown novel rolls out, supported by a massive marketing push, I’d like to share my thoughts on the three Dan Brown novels I’ve read, in the order I read them. I’m a bit surprised I’ve not mentioned them in this blog before.

I first encountered Dan Brown in a cluttered living room in San Diego. Angels & Demons was the title of the book, and my friend recommended it highly. I had free time, and reading is part of my job, so I sat down to consume it.

I’ll say this for the story: It was paced well. Events happened and knowledge was gained at a rapid pace but there was time for characters to reflect and for readers to catch up. It’s why I finished the book. The two main characters weren’t bad. And… that’s about it.

On the other hand, the science the entire story was based on was preposterous. The whole plot is driven by a battery that lasts twenty-four hours to the second, and it never seems to occur to anyone that a) battery life is not that predictable and b) even if it were possible to create a battery with a charge that lasted an extremely precise amount of time, there was no motivation here for the people who created the battery to worry about stuff like that.

That’s really a minor quibble, but everything else depended on it. People base decisions that could lead to the destruction of Rome and the death of millions of people to a blind faith on the 24-hour timer. It was the clock that drove the plot.

If that one seems ticky-tack, there were many worse errors in the grand parade of downright stupidity as far as science and scientists were concerned, creating an overwhelming wrongness that ruined the story. Things start off with a ride in a jet that can’t take off and go downhill from there. Then there was the tension between religion and science, which certainly exists, but the ability to create antimatter (which has been going on for decades now) certainly hasn’t created new rifts between science and religion. Unfortunately, this rift is another key plot driver. And the location of the secret lab at CERN? Nope. Antimatter as a world-changing power source? Sure, until you consider the ungodly amount of energy it took to create it. I could go on and on.

There was lots of information about some of the great works of art around Rome and the men who created them, and I found some of it fascinating. (Or was that stuff in the Da Vinci code? It’s a blur, now.) But was Brown’s research on art history any better than his science? I don’t know, but his credibility was shot long before the story even reached Rome. I just hope I’ve forgotten all those facts, in case they’re wrong.

And as far as the process for selecting a new Pope, I’m pretty skeptical that what is portrayed here – even if we allow that a bunch of senior church officials could be so utterly stupid – would be legit.

The ending is simply preposterous. Ridiculous. Eye-rolling, head-slapping stupid. But it’s dramatic, I’ll give Mr. Brown that.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I don’t remember who convinced me that The Da Vinci Code would make up for my disappointment with the previous read, but I was reasonably optimistic as I started in on the most famous of Mr. Brown’s novels.

To be honest, I don’t remember that much about the book anymore. It just didn’t stick. I remember rolling my eyes a few times, and thinking “that would never, ever, happen,” but overall I was not as annoyed by this book as I was by the other. How’s that for a ringing endorsement? “Dan Brown’s least annoying work to date!” Some of the characters are reasonably credible, but others are cartoons at best.

This book was controversial, which ironically is probably why we’re being treated to multiple major films based on Mr. Brown’s work. Remind me to write an otherwise innocuous novel that says Jesus had children. (I think that was the controversy – I suppose I’ll have to come up with my own.) There is a “huge” revelation in the story that begs a large question for anyone who can count past thirteen.

Still, I read the book, and once again I think the pacing had a lot to do with that. Dan Brown, for all his faults, kept me turning the pages.

Fool me three times…

Then there’s Deception Point. A steaming pile of suck from beginning to end (yet, once more, I read it all). This book was off on so many levels there’s no point trying to list them here. Let’s just leave it at: I’ll never read a novel by Dan Brown again.

Note: if for some reason you actually want to buy one of these books, and you use the above links, I get a kickback.

The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, is a big book, almost 1000 pages in the edition I read, containing a story that spans generations. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and when in the prolog someone invokes a curse and everyone takes it very seriously, I got the feeling I was reading a fantasy novel, which was not the case. There is an undercurrent of magic implicitly believed by the characters, but it rarely plays a central role. The curse is a good touch, but in the end does not inform the actual story very well.

Once I got past my misconceptions based on the prolog I began to enjoy the lives of the main characters. The piece is historical fiction, set in England in the second half of the 12th century, starting with the death of King Henry I, through political machinations and civil war, and into the period of relative peace that followed the coronation of Henry II. The conflict is never central to the story, but it is always there, affecting the lives of the people in the story in unpredictable ways.

For instance, a lot of people starve to death. I guess that was pretty common in those days. At the start one of the key families is starving, the mother dies in childbirth, and the baby is abandoned because the remaining family has no way to feed it. So it goes. Happily the baby is rescued by a monk, and is raised in a monastery. By an interesting set of circumstances, the monastery is in charge of a cathedral that needs to be rebuilt, and the kid’s father – the one who abandoned him in the forest – is the one in charge of the rebuilding.

There were some pretty big coincidences in this book, and as a rule I don’t like stories that are too dependent on fortune of this sort. In this case, they didn’t bother me too much. Perhaps the very low population of England at the time made repeat chance meetings more likely. There were a couple of times I thought the author pushed his luck (or his characters’ luck) a little too far, but most of those meetings were not key plot points. There is simply a group of people all tangled together, and the snarls of one generation affect the next.

I am not sure how historically accurate the story is (more on that later), but man, times were tough back then. He applies age-indicating adjectives to his characters that imply a lifespan not too much shorter than ours, but people find a lot of ways to die prematurely. Starvation I mentioned before, but the people who live in the (apparently fictional) village of Kingsbridge endure a cathedral falling on them, killing more than a hundred, and on top of that plain old violence.

There is violence in this book, both wholesale and personal. A city is burned while soldiers hack down the inhabitants. A work crew is massacred. On the personal side there is torture and rape, along with good old murder. The violence can be graphic at times, but in general I thought it fit with the story. There are people who really, really, don’t like each other, and it’s important to understand why, to feel the evil in your bones the same way the characters do.

As I said before, it’s a big book. A thousand pages. Honestly, I really don’t think there was enough story there to fill that many pages. At some points I found myself saying, “yeah, yeah, let’s get on with it.” Most of the time it was just extra setting that was interesting from a historical standpoint but in the end didn’t help the story. There were other cases, however, that were more annoying.

One general pattern of storytelling is “Someone has a problem. Their first attempt to fix the problem makes it worse. The second attempt fails. All attempts fail until the last act of desperation finally succeeds.” It’s a good pattern; one I should pay more attention to. However, when you read page after page of uninterrupted “then he tried this, then he tried this…” it gets old. Rather than building suspense, I found myself tempted to skip to the next chapter, since all these attempts were to solve a minor problem in the grand scheme of things. Is there an axiom here? Not sure, but for quickly-resolved plot points (Jack got out of the burning church), maybe one should limit the number of consecutive failures, unless there’s an unexpected consequence to one of the failures that matters later. Otherwise, let me smell Jack’s hair burn, help me feel his panic (I didn’t), then get him out of there.

Or Kill Jack. Follett is not above doing something like that, which is cool. That’s what kept me from jumping ahead for that particular dilemma. Still, live or die, the point is going to be resolved quickly, and all that other stuff just gets in the way.

As usual I’ve spent more time talking about the writing than the story. It’s what I do (apparently). The story itself is excellent, an intricate tangle of people who all have their own goals and their own ways of reaching them. People we like don’t like each other. Good people do bad things (though only rarely). Virtue is rewarded, but that can take a long, long time. A new cathedral is built and doesn’t crush the congregation to death.

At the end of the book, I had a lot of questions about the time the story was set in and some of the cities and churches featured in the book. I was also curious about the politics of the time. How much of the novel is fact and how much is fiction? Would it kill any of these authors to put in a little appendix about the times and some suggested reading? If Follett had chopped out a couple hundred pages of blah blah blah and replaced it with twenty pages of “The cathedral in the story is not real, but it’s based on…”, maybe a thumbnail history of the politics and the tension between church and the English monarchy, and things like that, I would have been extremely grateful. C’mon, Ken, you did all that research, why not share some of your favorite sources? (To be fair, he does share a wee bit of that information on his crassly commercial Web site.)

Overall, I’d say that if you have the time to devote to a big, meaty story, you could do a lot worse than this one.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

The Beginning of a Great Adventure

Here I am, in one of the nicer corners of San Jose, California. San Jose would not be my first choice for city of residence, being not so much a city as a large chunk of the continuous sprawl of alternating housing developments, strip malls, and office parks that is Silicon Valley. The city does have one thing going for it, however: That Girl lives here, and now I do too.

This marks a pretty major turning point in my life and therefore this blog as well. Up until now That Girl has been on the periphery of the blog, someone mentioned occasionally in passing but not a major figure. That’s not because she hasn’t been a big part of my life the last year and a half, it’s because I haven’t really figured out how to write about it. Plus, when one is a third of the world apart and communication is intermittent, a poorly-chosen blog word could lead to undue strife that would be resolved in seconds face-to-face.

I still haven’t figured out how I’m going to approach this, but perhaps now it will be easier. We’ll see. Inevitably there will be times when That Girl reads something in my blog that really she should have heard straight from me. There will be times I’ll have to choose between telling a good story and watching out for my sweetie’s feelings (and, well, some of it’s none of your damn business), and often the story will come out on the losing end. That’s just how it’s going to have to be. The other thoughts can go into my fiction.

Having a relationship is not scaling Everest, but in it’s own way the risks and rewards are even greater. It would be foolish for me to attempt Everest in my current condition, and I’m afraid that my good-boyfriend skills are also alarmingly atrophied. Still, I’m really damn excited about this journey, really happy that That Girl found me and spent years pounding against my cluelessness until I got the idea that she might be interested. All credit goes to her for that.

It’s an adventure almost all of us experience at one time or another, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. I’m not sure how I’m going to approach writing about it yet, but I’m still the same guy that can be fascinated by the tiny things, and I hope that there will be enough of those to shine a little light on this thing we call love.

So, welcome to the Great Adventure!

Across the Desert

I’m not used to traveling in convoy. It was a pleasant change to roll across the western third of the United States with my brother in the rear-view; good to have conversation at rest stops and meals, and to split a pitcher of Bass Ale at Mad Dog’s Dog House in Kingman, Arizona. There is a downside, however — time I normally spend over a laptop musing about the journey and its larger meaning is spent instead discussing plans to take over the world.

The most notable aspect of this trip, however, was the wind. There was a lot of it, and it was directly in our faces. On day one we stopped at Speedy’s, just across the border in Arizona, where I remembered a decent little trucker cafe. When we walked in I realized I had guided us to the wrong place, but we stayed. We sat by a window and watched the as the wind whipped rain and dust around simultaneously.

The wind roared around the building, a taller-than-necessary steel skeleton with thick-looking walls and a gently-sloping roof. fuego leaned his back against the outer wall and felt the building flex with the gusts. “The employees don’t seem to be worried,” he said, “so I guess this happens all the time.” A particularly strong gust made the roof groan and I made a comment about it blowing off.

Our food came – quite good food, as it turned out; I had mutton stew and fuego had a green chile grilled cheese sandwich. We ate and continued to marvel at the spectacle outside. I was not looking forward to pumping gas out there.

The waitress was bussing a table near ours when a loud POP reverberated through the building. After a bit of confusion we all started looking up at the ceiling. Another pop followed, not as loud as the first. Now, the employees were nervous as well. I began to plan a swift exit strategy should things get worse.

We finished our meal (neither of us that hungry due to good snack supplies) and there were only a couple more pops from above before we effected our escape. [A brief Google check that night uncovered no mention of the roof blowing off after we left.]

The other effect of the wind was on gas mileage. Normally going from the border to Kingman on a tank of gas would be routine, but as we passed Seligman (and the last gas stations for a long, long way), I was surprised at how low I was on gas. I still appeared to have seventy miles’ worth, though, so on we went. The gauge continued its nose-dive toward E, however, and the last few tense miles fuego took the lead to give me a windbreak. We made it to a station, I filled up, and the last few miles into Kingman were routine.

We ate, slept, and Sunday we split up at Barstow, both turning toward our designated blights of urban sprawl. I arrived, scratched my arm on a fire extinguisher box, was met by That Girl with a big hug and the next phase of my journey through life began.

Leaving Prague

I’m not a big fan of packing, and cleaning, and all the other tasks associated with moving. As a result, I tend to procrastinate when confronted with them. Add to that a big complicated task like making a short movie — a task that will absorb as much time as I allow it to — and the desire to keep my normal tasks of writing and maintaining software (the latter a dismal failure lately), and you end up with night falling less than twelve hours before departure, suitcases empty, house a jumble, and the clock ticking away.

Add on top of that an editor anxiously waiting for the data from the last day of shooting and the master audio, a task that ended up sucking down a couple of hours of my time, and it’s fair to say that my exit in the morning was not the cleanest one on record. I stopped downstairs to tell the landlord that the big pile of clothes was for charity (Angelo will be picking it up), and that Soup Boy would be in touch. I forgot to mention that the garment bag was hers for the taking, that the hair trimmer set was Soup Boy’s if he wanted it, and that the bag at the top of the stairs was trash that would not fit in the can outside.

I was in Atlanta when I realized that I had left my leather jacket in the kitchen. Bummer. I really like that jacket. Apparently That Girl does also. I was wearing it when she first saw me.

But time waits for no panicked, exhausted, scrambling packer, and it didn’t wait for me, either. Goodbyes were brief and then the car arrived to whisk fuego and me to the airport. “Whisk” in this case meant stop-and-go traffic; it was like Prague was giving us one last reminder of what California would be like, one last bid to have us stay. Sorry, lovely city, but it’s time to move on.

Airports are airports, and while Prague’s is less of a hassle than some, it’s not different enough to warrant much comment. My bags were a bit over the limit but thanks to the traffic jam the agent didn’t have time to make me pay extra. So that worked out.

On the plane, over the water. In the seat behind me was a 14-month-old baby, and I cringed when I sat down. Still, I’ve had some experience with that demographic lately, so I resolved to be tolerant. fortunately, the kid did really well, with a minimum of fussing and only the occasional seat-kicking. It was the five-year-old in the seat in front of me who was the problem. Lots of energy, nowhere to go, piercing scream. Lovely.

Atlanta was routine; a period of standing in line to be screened by various agents of the government, then a wait until the plane was ready. From there to Albuquerque, and a hotel. It was a long day, eight hours longer than most days, but fuego and I managed to stay up long enough to have dinner at a diner that served green chile. The plan was to meet with family members in the morning, to recover my car and go up to Los Alamos for the evening.

Only, with all the communication and plan-making flying around, apparently none of the messages sent to my sister and brother-in-law, the keepers of my car, included the date of our arrival. They were out of town. Hm. A bit of a wrinkle, that. Fortunately the parents had an extra key for the house where the car was. Unfortunately, it was 100 miles away. We went up to the ol’ homestead and fuego and I prepared for our road trip, and I got to see my beer slave.

It all worked out in the end, obviously; Saturday morning found fuego and me in a convoy heading out into the desert. I’ll tell you about it soon.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

As I was driving across the desert yesterday, I heard a song for the first time. It has a little hook that goes like this:

One thing

To do

Three words

For you

The first time I heard the rhyme, I thought it was kind of clever. The second time it’s repeated in the song, I thought, “Hallmark”. The third time, I was done with it. By the end of the song, I was pretty sure I never needed to hear it again.

It seems, however, that the tune is question is in heavy rotation right now. As I searched the airwaves for stations as I scuttled actoss the surface of the earth, the song kept coming up. Each time I listened to less of it before changing stations, no matter what I thought of the music that had come before. I was more tolerant of commercials than I was of this song, and I don’t much like commercials.