Monthly Archives: May 2011

Graduation Day

My younger son graduated pre-kindergarten today. It’s not much of a milestone in the grand scheme of things, but it’s one more reminder that time only progresses in one direction, and that direction appears to be “fast”.

He’s five years old now, my oldest is seven, and every day it gets harder to account for those years. They’ve been packed with lots of great days, to be sure, it just doesn’t seem like they’ve been packed with *enough* days to account for seven years of parenthood. Having kids around definitely seems to make the time fly more quickly. You don’t have only your own milestones to keep track of, but several people’s.

Starting to think about the passing of time is a downward spiral, too. This summer I’ll be thirty five years old. Pretty soon I’ll have been out of high school for more years than I lived before graduation. Yeesh. Those years have been packed as well, but it’s a reminder that I need to make an effort to pack the next ones *more*.

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Reading About Writing – Part One

Part one of something I might do more of, since I have another book on writing I want to talk about fairly soon. Today I’m talking about Nascence, by Tobias Buckell.

One of the truths of life is that failure can teach you more than success. We all know it, and we all hate it. Not many of us look at failure and see it as part of a growing process.

In Nascence, Tobias Buckell collects several failed stories–stories he never published and, for the most part, never worked to correct–while introducing each story with the reason(s) why he considers that story to be a failure.

There’s a lot you can learn about writing from writers, but some things are less concrete and you end up getting vague suggestions about what the end result should look like without them being able to tell you the HOW of it. At least from an amateur perspective it is, I suppose some of this stuff is well and clearly explained in many writing classes. From my experience, learning from writers can feel like having a map without roads. “You want to gamble? You need to get to Vegas. It’s this spot right here. I’m not sure exactly where you are now, and I can’t show you which roads go to Vegas, but that’s where you need to go.” Depending on where you’re starting from, you’re likely to be killed along the way and you never know how long the trip will take you.

Buckell’s approach is different. He doesn’t point you to some vague end result. He doesn’t hint at what consensus says makes for a good story. He has you read bad stories and tells you exactly why they’re crappy. He tells you the mistakes that led to the failure so that you can do better. The mistakes are big ones, and probably common ones. Errors much worse than bad grammar or bad spelling because those little mistakes are easy to find and fix. Definitely they’re mistakes I made in almost all of the stories I consider failures, I just didn’t know why they failed before now. If this were baking, then knowing exactly what you did wrong wouldn’t change the taste of the crappy pie in front of you, but it would give you a clear path and a series of good questions to ask for the next try. Buckell tells you something is clumsy and then he shows you how bad it looks when it’s done. Instead of simply telling you that a story should be about a character who has the most at stake and the most to lose, letting you figure it out from there, he provides several stories in which the main character is a bystander and shows you how boring and unsatisfying that is for a reader. Buckell puts his flawed stories out there, warts and all, and shows you exactly how those warts can kill your work. He’ll also occasionally point to things he could have done to make the story work, so you can picture in your head how the framework would have changed. I could summarize many of the points he makes into a concise blog post, but I don’t believe it would have the same effect as seeing the bad, right there in front of you as you learn to identify what’s wrong, so I’d encourage the full reading of the book.

Nascence is probably not worth it for fans of Buckell’s fiction looking for more since many of these stories, and especially the earliest ones, are not just flawed but decidedly rough, though some still present interesting characters and settings which might appeal to the hardcore fans looking to see where his imagination was going at the time. But Buckell’s insights into why his own stories failed are golden for writers looking to improve. I’ve read a lot of books about the craft of writing, but no book on writing has ever helped me fix a broken story before I read Nascence. Not fixed in a vocabulary, grammar, or sentence structure sort of way, but fixed in a story-structuring way. In an almost extra-story way. I fixed some of the stuff you wouldn’t be able to see but which is there in the sum total of the words on the page. Writers should definitely learn from Buckell’s experience. Learn from his mistakes so that you can spot those mistakes in your own writing. When I bought it for $5 as an ebook, it was a steal, and it looks like it’s now been dropped to $2.99 on Amazon and B&N, which is even better.

Available only as an ebook, DRM-free directly from Buckell’s website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble.


That Dreaded Word

In all my writing endeavours, there is one word which both makes me smile and makes me cringe. One word which makes me think I’m about to do something wonderful but which at the same time cements in my mind the fact that I will get nothing done for hours. Or days. Depending on the project, maybe even weeks or months.

Research.

I had two short stories I wanted to revise this month, one short story I wanted to write because the ideas were starting to gel into something special, and a novel to re-outline. I’m stuck on all of them. Often, when I’m writing, I’ll get the story down, make sure the bones are where they need to be and that I’ve put on the right amount of muscle and sinew. In later drafts I worry about making it pretty, I worry about the details. Often there will be one or several points I want to research to get the story just right, to find that one little nugget that will make it shine.

For these stories, the research will make or break them. For the novel, there are a few major points which I need to read up on or certain premises I’ve thought up will fall flat. there’s more there, so I know the thing is salvageable, even if I need to take certain aspects in a different direction. For the short stories, where you only have a few concepts to work with, the research will make or break them entirely. One involves historical timelines of things I thought were congruent but which might be off by several hundred years (yes, I took something for granted. Don’t do that.) The other isn’t so bad, it’s just that Wikipedia is failing me, as is my home library, and I need to make a trip to the local library, I just haven’t had the chance yet. And so… stuck, for the time being. Except for the new story, which just needs a few little pieces to fall into place before I jump in.

I know I’ll get through it, I know it won’t be that long, and I’m anxious to learn more about subjects I’m already fond of. I just wish I could be done with¬† it RIGHT NOW DAMMIT! Where’s my Matrix brain-jack already?


Summer

Who has no thumbs and is happier than I am to have summer around again?

This guy:

I know, technically it isn’t summer yet, but that right there is a dude who loves his sunbeams. I can’t say the same for myself. I was perfectly happy when it was fall/winter. It was cool, it wasn’t so bright all the time, there were no bugs…

Note: Picture taken a couple of days ago. It’s pouring rain today.


Free Comic Book Day: Part Two

It’s been a week since FCBD, and I’ve had a chance to read the issues I picked up. There were a lot of sampler issues this year, which give you a taste of what’s out there, without giving you the whole pie. Some are good, some less so. Marvel and DC pulled through with full issues involving Spidey, Thor, Captain America, and Green Lantern, all good choices to remind people that the upcoming movies are spawned from a pre-existing mythos. Decent stories, all in all.

The one I was most looking forward to was Locke & Key, which I’d heard a lot about. In this case, the story spanned a full issue, but read much faster than a full issue would. There are nine full-page panels, and a lot of panels with neither dialogue not captions, so the 28 pages read more like a short story with big pictures. Nevertheless, it’s enough to give a taste of what the series is about, while telling a small, complete story in the process. The premise seems interesting enough, as do the characters, and I’m more interested now in picking up the series than I was before I read it. Call that mission accomplished for a freebie.

The Dark Horse split issue of Baltimore/Criminal Macabre was one I hadn’t heard about, though both series seem dark enough to be right up my alley. I’m not sold on them yet, and of the two I think I prefer Baltimore, though Criminal Macabre might have more potential to tell interesting individual stories. Both are worth looking into further.

One I picked up without knowing what it was, was the Worlds of Aspen issue, which teases several series by Aspen comics. This one failed a bit. I was really looking forward to it after flipping through it in the shop last Saturday, but the stories are short, giving a taste of the individual worlds of the stories, but giving almost nothing of the characters within them, and therefore, not much reason to care or be interested further. Longer, contained bits of bigger stories might have worked better for this freebie. The exception was Lady Mechanika, which teases a conflict between some of the characters while giving us a taste of the steampunk-inspired world they live in. That one I may look for in the future.

The biggest surprise was Mouse Guard. In all honesty, I picked that one up for my kids, but on the way out I heard an adult remark how ecstatic they were to have picked up a Mouse Guard collected book, which surprised me. I read the story, read it to my kids, and even read it again on my own afterwards. It left me with a warm glow of a small story much enjoyed, and hinted beautifully at the greater world and the roles of the characters within it. I’m definitely intrigued enough to look for more in this title. I don’t seem to be the only one who likes it, given the interest and acclaim it seems to have garnered after a quick online search, and I wonder how this title slipped under my radar in the first place.


I Hate Funerals

Really I do.It’s depressing to sit with a large group of sad people around the body of someone who will never be a living part of our existence anymore. Mostly what I hate about funerals is that we only have them when someone we know has died, which really is about as bad as it gets.

I won’t be at the actual funeral, but I’ll be going to a viewing tomorrow for a friend who passed away last Friday morning. I worked with him for several years and he was always fun to have around, but now’s he’s dead, of cancer, at 34. This is the second person within my circle of friends who has died of cancer this year, and both were younger than 40. This fact hits pretty close to home, because it’s not the parents, grandparents, aunts, or elderly relatives of friends who are dying, it’s my generation of people. And it’s not just one statistically-improbably-young person anymore. It brings Death a lot closer to home than it was even when my mother passed away, because she was older. She was still too young for cancer, but the argument could be made that she’d lived. Having Death stalking people my age is in many ways harder to deal with than having Death stalking people in my immediate family because the little thing in the back of your head that’s always been telling you, “Relax, you’re fine, you’re too young to worry about cancer and dying.”¬† is now sitting there going “um… well… er… shit.”

34… he was younger than me, and had been fighting for 2 years, even.

When my other friend passed away earlier this year, the atmosphere was different. He had no wife or children, so all we mourners had was mostly good memories of more carefree times. We had a wake for him, we traded stories, we caught up, and we celebrated his life. The only legacy he left behind was the good memories in our minds. With this most recent death, that will be harder because he’s leaving behind a wife and two very young children. I remember the good times, I always will, but I’ll always think how shitty it is that these kids are going to be deprived of one seriously good dad. His death becomes sad for more reasons than simply the bitter fact of his absence.

Still, I’m glad to have known him. I can cling to that.

RIP


Free Comic Book Day

As many people know, today was Free Comic Book Day. I’ve been to shops on this day before, but this was the first time I brought my oldest son along with me. We went to The 4th Wall, not far from where I live. He loved picking up the comics, and even got a sketch done for him by Kelly Tindall, choosing Batman and Robin. The little guy’s become something of a Batman fan over the last few months, and FCBD was just a nice opportunity to introduce him to the world behind the characters he likes.

It’s nice to see my sons taking an interest in a lot of things I took an interest in at their age. I always wonder how much of it is genetics, and how much of it is just that some things light up kids’ imagination more than others (dinosaurs, ancient Egypt, other planets, certain caped superheroes…). Certainly there’s a fascination with things we can’t actually experience, but it’s amazing to me that he’s taking, unprompted, more or less the same path to discovery that I did at his age.

Overall, a seriously big haul on this FCBD, somewhere around 25 issues from assorted publishers. There’s the usual super-hero and kid stuff in there, but some other interesting items as well which caught my interest in a quick flip-through and definitely look to be worth the read. I’ll post later this week when I’ve had a chance to read through it all. I also picked up the next collected bits of other series I’m currently reading (Transmetropolitan & Echo), and some stuff which had been highly recommended (Unwritten & Last Days of American Crime). Lots of great reading coming up!