A Return

So.

I had this idea, far back in the mists of ancient time, that when I wrote something on the internet it was for something. In my earliest LiveJournal days I thought I would meet like-minded angsty twenty-somethings or offer new perspectives on living in Japan. With the podcast, I thought I would attract my own salon of readers, and with each episode we would meet in the comments sections to talk about books and reading.

Even here, I wrote in the belief that somehow sharing my sliver of the human experience would somehow become significant. That it would add to the vast sea of shared knowledge and make the world richer in some way.

To the best of my knowledge, none of that has happened.

I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t disappointing – the whole gold rush of blogging in the early-to-mid 2000’s basically promised a new kind of fame if you could attract the right people and a big enough audience, and there was certainly a time when that was something like what I wanted. But, like Mick and the boys say, you can’t always get what you want.

With disappointment comes reflection, though. I had to reflect on what it was I was really doing when I wrote these blogs or recorded those podcasts or even when I sent a tweet out into the world. The fact is that the universe (or at least the part of it represented by the internet) is indifferent to what I want. If I try writing for fame or attention or even a minimal kind of validation from the outside world, I will be disappointed.

It is better, then, to remember why I should be writing. Because there are things that I need to say, and that will drive me mad if I don’t. If I haven’t been adding to this blog, it was probably because I felt that I didn’t have anything to say. The question I need to ask myself is whether I truly believed that, or if I was simply convinced that no one would read what I wrote. I hate to believe that the former is true, but it shames me to think that the latter would be.

Maybe both. I’m not sure.

Anyway, I’ve been shaken out of my stupor by the events of the last few days. In a world where Trump can be elected president, silence really isn’t an option. More on that in the next post.

Thanksgiving, Day 21: The Podcast

Part of who I am, who I have discovered myself to be, is that I have a certain fondness for ritual and routine. I like it when I can predict what’s coming up and when I know what I should be doing and when. Now if I were in a Hollywood romantic comedy or playing the lead on a TV show, I would clearly be in the wrong and would have to have someone like Drew Barrymore or Zooey Deschanel show me the error of my ways. They would feel compelled to teach me a love of spontaneous chaos, to break me out of the stolid routine my life had become.

Drew and Zooey can just piss right off, as far as I’m concerned. I like my routines and my rituals, and of them all, the one that really defines my week is the podcast – The Labyrinth Library.

I started this back in aught-nine, after my sister floated the idea past me of doing short book reviews for the radio station she works at, WNPR. I’d been writing reviews for ages, and had a pretty good back catalog to choose from. The idea was that I would record a five or ten minute review and it would help fill space in the broadcast schedule. As it turned out, her bosses didn’t go for the idea, but that was okay – it gave me the liberty to take the idea and make it my own.

This wasn’t my first podcast, actually. I tried making one a few years before, when podcasting was just beginning to catch on, but I very quickly realized that I didn’t actually have anything to say. The few episodes I did were just me talking about… things. And you know what? The internet has enough of that already. As I started listening to others’ work, one thing became very clear – if you’re going to ask people to spend time with your podcast, it should be about something. And for me, there was nothing better I could have chosen than books.

So I did my research, figured out how the whole process should work, and launched the Labyrinth Library on January 15th, 2009. I started with Good Omens, as a representative of what I love in books, and followed it by The Bad Beginning, as a representative of what I hate. Everything else fit in between those books somewhere.

And I’ve done it ever since. Once a week, without exception, for 202 episodes (as of this morning). If it were a sitcom, I’d be making mad money on syndication rights. It’s not too late, NPR…

As it is, though, I have something I can be proud of. I don’t have a great history when it comes to committing to projects and following through with them, so it would not have surprised me if I had done this for a couple of months and then let it die out. But I didn’t. It’s fun to do, from the writing to the actual production of it, and as the years have gone on, I’ve become aware that there are people who not only listen to the podcast, but enjoy listening to it. And it is because I know they’re out there that I can set up my equipment every week, ask The Boyfriend to keep the dog quiet for a half hour or so, and put this together. So to everyone who listens, I am thankful for you.

I don’t know what the future of the LabLib looks like, of course. As I have alluded to, I have a limited back catalog, and as I don’t read and review a new book every week (since I have a job and stuff), there will come a point where recording day comes and I don’t have anything to record. At that time, it’ll have to go from being a weekly podcast to an occasional one. I’ll still update, though, as often as is possible. I’ve done this too long and had too much fun with it to let it go entirely.

So, in my ritualized, carefully-structured week, the podcast is something I always look forward to. It gives my week shape and it helps keep me busy. For that I am most certainly thankful.

Thanksgiving, Day 20: Being Able to Write

The internet has democratized content creation, and, to paraphrase Theodore Sturgeon, 90% of it is crap. Maybe it’s because education standards have fallen or because people don’t read as often as they used to, but a lot of the blogs I read and sites I visit – even the professional ones – feature really bad writing. People have no sense of the flow of language, how it makes you feel or how it works when you scroll down the page. They type what they think and then hit “PUBLISH,” not giving a second thought as to whether or not what they have put up on the internet is actually their best work. Even setting aside grammar and spelling errors that no one should make [1], a lot of it just isn’t all that interesting or appropriate for the point the author might be trying to make.

While I’m certainly not going to try and put forth myself as an expert on how to write, I can at least say that I’ve been doing this long enough to have a good sense of how to not screw it up. I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember, and even when I was a kid I practiced writing. I tried adapting comic books to text, wrote my own stories, and eventually ended up becoming a serial book reviewer. As soon as the internet became A Thing, I took to it like fish to tartar sauce – I wrote flash fiction, essays, arguments, all kinds of things. I started my own homepage after college, joined LiveJournal when it was still popular, and have maintained a written internet presence for ages.

Being able to write well takes practice, and lots of it. It takes observation of others, to see what you might want to emulate and what you want to avoid. It takes a certain amount of self-awareness, to know when what you are doing needs to be tweaked, revised, or in some cases thrown out entirely.

More importantly, though, it allows me to express myself. It allows me to take the ideas that spark and flash and smolder and effervesce in my head and organize them. It lets me lock them down and look at them from different angles until I know what they are and what they mean. Writing, in this sense, isn’t just the act of putting words in order, but rather of putting thoughts in order. And of all the skills I could have asked to have, that ability has been a mighty useful one.

—–
[1] And it is at this point that I start getting email from people about the grammar and spelling errors in my posts….

In which I am almost, but not entirely, like Ultra Boy

It’s very important that I write something. Over the winter break, I picked up a bunch of games off Steam – Batman: Arkham Asylum, L.A. Noire, Grand Theft Auto IV, Bastion, The Binding of Isaac – they call to me. They want to help me eat up vast amounts of time without really realizing it. They want to sap away my precious intellectual juices in a haze of car crashes and Batarangs.

On the other hand, I stole a SWAT truck!

As much fun as that sounds, I do have work to do. Not school work, though that wouldn’t be a bad idea. I have my own work to do – writing.

Last year, I got really lazy with writing book reviews, which isn’t really a sound strategy when you’re the sole writer for an internationally-known book review podcast. [1] With every week that I do the show, my backlist of reviews diminishes by one, and sooner or later I’ll be at a point where I have to actually write one review a week just to catch up. That’ll be the point where I’ll have to either end the podcast or put it on a hiatus, because there’s no way I can pull that off for very long.

So, one of my resolutions for this year is to get back in the saddle of review-writing, and make sure I always have plenty of reviews to choose from each week. As of this writing, I have a backlist of 48 reviews. That’s great. Unfortunately, half of them are either Wheel of Time reviews or Discworld. So I need to get moving on this and try to put some variety back in the stacks. I have a lot of old, pre-podcast reviews that I can beef up, but a lot of those are for books I no longer own. That means doing a bit of research to remember what they were about, to say nothing of cursing out Past Chris for not writing more thoroughly.

The other work I have to do, of course, is writing fiction. I’m still plugging along on my fic-a-day work, and have decided that in January I will use only all-new characters. That’s not as hard as it sounds, but after seven months it does seem to take a little more energy every day just to get started on writing. I know I have to do it, but I find other things to do, and that’s never a good sign. It also brings me to the title of this post.

His Ultra-Smooth is always on, though. Another difference between him and me.

In case you’re not familiar with him, Ultra Boy is a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes, a group that battles interstellar menaces in the far future of the DC Universe. Ultra Boy is a character with pretty run-of-the-mill powers – super-speed, invulnerability, great strength, and so on – but with one rather strange caveat: he can only use one of his powers at a time.

The idea is that his body is full of some kind of “ultra-energy” that can allow him to do amazing things, but he has to consciously will it to do what he wants. And there’s not really enough of it to go around. So, he can be really fast, but not inhumanly strong, or he can be super-strong and yet vulnerable to an enemy’s weapons. It’s an interesting twist, and part of what makes him more than just Superboy with some stubble.

Now while I cannot, as of this writing, fly or shoot lasers out of my eyes, I do feel a kind of kinship with Ultra Boy. I have creative energy that I can do pretty good things with. I’m not superheroic or anything, but I’m certainly not bad. The trouble is that I can only use it for one creative outlet at a time. So if I’m writing, it means that I’m not drawing or doing photography. If I start getting more caught up in photography, then the writing will stop. If I feel the drawing itch kick in, then that’ll be it for the photography, and so on.

I hear Fitzgerald did this all the time.

The thing is, I don’t really have a lot of control over when my creative outlet is going to switch from one thing to another, or if it’ll just stop altogether – which has happened before. So when I get to a point like where I am today, where I just want to switch off my brain and hijack cars all night, I start to worry that this is the first sign of The Switch. I really want to continue with writing, and I have no plans to stop doing the podcast. But perhaps my subconscious has other things in mind for me.

The obvious solution, of course, is to soldier on. To write something, even if it’s half-assed and half-hearted, just so I can say, “Well, I did it.” But at the same time, I don’t want it to become a chore. I don’t want it to become just one more damn thing I have to do every day. I’m not making money off the podcast or the fiction, so the main reason I do it, really, is for my own enjoyment. And if I don’t enjoy it, then what’s the point?

Anyway, all that is neither here nor there. I’ll keep on keeping on, and monitoring myself to see what’s keeping me on track and what’s trying to nudge me off it. Self-knowledge is a good thing, if a little tricky at times.

—–

[1] There are people in other countries who listen to it. So I’m just being accurate.

NaNo was a Triumph!

Let me make a note here, hold on: huge success.

Seriously, folks – not only did I make the 50,000 word mark, but I blew right through it – the official final total was 73,176 words. Which makes me, as they say, a winner!

Before we get into a review of the whole experience, let’s just take a look at the last section, which was broadly based on the aether – a fifth element that, for reasons unknown to me, does not usually appear as a quirky redhead. It was, instead, the substance through which light waves were thought to propagate. A rather clever and simple experiment managed to prove that the aether didn’t exist, however, which makes it perfect for telling stories about other things that don’t exist – ghosts, ESP, spirits of every shape and size.

  • Houseguests is a tale of a haunted house, where fourteen boys were tortured and killed. The house is bought by a pair of dedicated skeptics. Because after all – there’s no such thing as ghosts, right? Except for the ones that really do live there…
  • The Bad News tells more of Carly Siminsky’s story. Carly is a telekinetic girl, held by the Department of National Security for – allegedly – her own safety. She’s doing well in her training, until she hears something that she cannot endure.
  • Spirit Guide, in which a young man is having problems with his date. Mainly because his spirit guide, a floating blue panda bear, is trying to help him get lucky.
  • Finders Keepers, a story that may or may not reflect some writers’ bias, is about a woman, a telepath who uses her powers to steal the seeds of ideas from famous authors to build a writing career of her own. The latest author, however, might be harder to get into than she thought.
  • Hotline is about a psychic, but not a real one. A young woman acting as a telephone psychic to make money for college. Her last call of the night, however, turns out to be one she couldn’t have forseen.
  • Dream Intervention is the monthly revisitation of a story I wrote last month. A man with the power to enter the dreams of others is trying to help a young man with a problem that even he doesn’t understand.

It was a good section, with some fun ideas that popped into my head, and others that actively resisted being drawn out into reality. But I suppose the aether is like that – indefinable, and unreliable. At 12,453 words, it was the second shortest section – probably due to the fact that there wasn’t a whole lot of pressure anymore.

Most important, though, was that I finished NaNoWriMo with plenty of time to spare, and managed to get a very respectable number of words in before the month ended. How did I do it, you might ask? Very simple:

  • I planned. I made sure that I knew what I was going to do for the month, and had keywords set up to give me something to think about while I put the stories together. Aside from providing a seed for the story to grow from (which is pretty much where Finders Keepers is all about), it allowed me to think about the stories during time when I normally wouldn’t write.
  • I was regular in my writing. My regular writing time is at night – usually after eight or so, given my schedule, and I need to finish by eleven. That’s not a whole lot of time, but I made damn sure I used it. If I couldn’t – for example, on Wednesdays, when the podcast is due – I would do as much as I could during the day.
  • I used all the time I had on my hands. The effect of this, of course, what that I didn’t have a lot of time to do anything else. I didn’t read a book all month, or write a review or anything, which seems really out of character and weird for me.

What this means for the future, of course, is that now I have an excellent month to point to and say, “I did that.” Over 70,000 words, and if I print out the whole month, single-spaced, it’s just over 160 pages.

A triumph indeed.

For December, though, I’m going to ramp things down a little. Do some world-building and exploring, look at some of the people and places I’ve created over the last six months and 279,000 words. It should be an interesting little vacation.

Take a Deep Breath…

I’m going to make this one a little short, since my body has decided that what it needs right now is to be allergic to something. So while I still have not yet gone mad from sneezing and tissue abrasions, let’s do a roundup of NaNoWriMo Part Five: Air.

  • In Self-Guided Tour, a young Ezra Resnick (whom we have seen before as an adult) is still learning what he can do with his ability to pass through solid matter. And what better way to test that ability than to walk right into one of the most heavily-guarded buildings on the planet: the White House.
  • Spotlight is a look at a former celebutante – a person famous just for being famous – who has tried to leave her old, shallow life behind her and vanish from the public eye. Angie Gallagher learns that disappearing in this day and age is harder than she thinks.
  • Prince of the Air, part one and part two, tells of young Prince Rissandir of the magic-powerful kingdom of Ardenspire. Rissandir wants to fly without magic, using a machine of his own design. His experiment could change the world. Or kill him. One or the other.
  • Before the Storm, a flash fiction of panic, anticipation and fear of a most formidable force of nature.
  • Up, Up, and Away, a story of the annoyances of flying and the lengths a friend will go to to get a lift.

Quite a few of these stories were related to air in a metaphorical way, sometimes a couple of steps removed. The most obvious example is Spotlight, which seems to have nothing to do with the theme whatsoever. Here’s how the thought chain went: Air > invisibility > trying to stay hidden > from people who really want to find you. Before the Storm was also more symbolic than it seemed at first glance. Mostly because I hate small children. But the rest were pretty straightforward, I think.

My favorite of this section was Prince of the Air, which got a nice comment from someone who said that he was pretty much beyond fantasy fiction right now, but really liked the characters. And honestly, so did I. Rissandir and Calaris appeared in my head pretty much fully-formed and already bickering, which is great. For a lot of those scenes, all I had to do was sit back and write down what they were saying. It made it a lot easier to examine the motivations of the brothers, too, since they were much more willing to talk to me.

Important plot point: aether doesn't exist.

All in all, this section netted me a paltry 11,742 words, mainly because I busted through the NaNoWriMo goal and can now afford to throttle back a bit. The grand total thus far is 60,593, which is impressive enough that the NaNo stats page had to bump the graph up to 80,000 just in case I have a final, manic burst of creativity in the next five days.

Which, by the way, is Aether – time to explore things like ghosts, telepathy, maybe astral travel, possession and angels and demons and stuff. I’m looking forward to this one…

Dig Far, Dig Deep…

Once again it’s time to check in on the progress of my NaNoWriMo project, and I have to say that things are looking pretty good! The theme of this section was “Earth,” and it had a few entertaining surprises in it. So let’s look at the breakdown:

  • The Hole – A giant sinkhole opens up in the middle of the city of Freestone, and the mayor calls on the great geologist Jenna Spenser and her team to find out what happened. What she discovers is the last thing anyone expects.
  • The Golemime, parts one, two, and three – Mimes are being murdered in Estervale! Someone with a vendetta is killing right under the noses of the police department, and the chief is determined to find the killer. Precinct thaumaturge Thaddeus Zoltaire is tasked with creating an indestructible mime golem to catch the killer!
  • Away From the Green – Evelyn Pierce is cursed with the ability to communicate with and control plant life. She’s moved to the middle of the desert to escape it, but a visit from Department of National Security special agent Tanner Quan may force her to face her true nature.
  • Mother Earth – Starlight Moonwhispers loves all living things, and she believes that humanity is a direct threat to the survival of the planet. Her meditations have guided her to occupy an oil company building, but this time they bring her somewhere else. She meets someone who opens her eyes to the true nature of her mission.

Most of these stories were really fun to write. Let’s get the big one out of the way first: I wrote The Golememe for a Worth1000 contest – “Mimes” – the rule for which was that you just had to write a story and put a mime in there somewhere. I found a nice way to do it while keeping to my NaNo project, and figured I could write maybe 2,000 words, edit down to the required 1,500 and call it a day.

But the story had other ideas.

Now imagine him about seven feet tall and terrifying.

Before I knew it, the story was blossoming out into a full-scale police thriller that eventually stretched to about 8,000 words. And that’s without some of the twists and character issues that I came up with while I was writing it. And for those of you who are Discworld fans, yes, I had the spirit of Constable Dorfl hovering over me the whole time. I’m certainly not the first person to put a golem into a police department, but I may be the first to put one into a stripey shirt and heavy face makeup. In any case, I really enjoyed this story and will probably come back to it someday.

As for the others – The Hole was interesting and has some potential, but I didn’t really connect too well with it. Re-reading it, the narrative has a kind of detached quality that needs fixing. As of yet, I don’t seem to have a character to tap into for a good point of view. Something to fix in re-writes.

And it was nice to see poor Evelyn Pierce again. This is a character I never expected to write about again. She showed up as a throwaway character in the story Interviews (about a case worker for de-powered metahumans), and then got randomly chosen for a character mash-up that paired her with my Constant Victim, Rachael Decker, in A Friend in Need. When I thought about what I would do for the “Earth” section, I knew she’d be a good choice. A woman who talks to plants? And isn’t really happy about it? Score. She’s really miserable, and I haven’t figured out exactly where her story ends up, but she seems to be one of those characters that lingers. And you should take good care of those.

Finally, the last Earth story came to me in a flash while I was walking home. I thank both my Muse and my Inner Cynic [1] for this one…

One of the things that annoys me about environmental politics and activism is this constant idea that humans are “destroying the earth.” We’re “ruining” the environment or “ravaging” the planet, and that image is used to get us to send money to their cause or carry our own shopping bags, or stop using baby seal fur to make toilet paper. [2]

Whether the earth can survive the Invasion of the Paper Dolls, however, is unknown.

The fact of the matter is that the Earth has already been hit with far worse than anything we can throw at it. Ice ages, meteor impacts, mass extinctions, supervolcanoes, all these have happened in the planet’s long history, often more than once, and it’s survived. More than that, it’s flourished.

So maybe it’s time to admit that we don’t actually have the power to either save or destroy the earth. Maybe what we’re really interested in is saving our species. We’ve grown up in a very nice period of the earth’s history, and we want to not screw that up any more than we have to. Sooner or later, something will happen to wipe us out, of course. Let’s just try not to make it happen at our own hand.

So the story is a wee bit soapboxy, but the idea of taking a starry-eyed hippie girl and crushing her naive yet earnest dreams and ambitions just made me laugh and laugh and laugh….

It was an interesting six days of writing, and there are only twelve more to go! The next section is Air, and I have a few ideas bubbling around in my head for that. But first, some stats:

It turns out that I’m damn near at the goal of 50,000 words. The Earth section by itself was 15,997 words – not as good as Water, but better than Fire. Last night I hit 48,851 total, for an average of 2,714 words per story. I figure today’s story should put me over the top, so long as it’s over 1,200 words – which, if the rest of this month is any indication, it should very well be. And if I keep writing at this rate, the whole month should net me a bit over 80,000 words. Definitely a new record.

Thanks to everyone who’s commented and said kind things and all that. I appreciate the feedback.

Today's the big day!

——————-

[1] I’m not sure if I have an Inner Cynic or if he has an Inner Me….
[2] It’s soft and absorbent, dammit! You’ll never get me to stop!