Archive for February, 2010

Works in Progress: Sometimes I Feel Like This Guy

Just an excerpt from the work-in-progress (the one about fairies) — I think it speaks for itself well enough without context that I don’t really need to provide and information about who these people are or why they’re talking about this.  So I’ll just say that sometimes I feel a little bit like this guy and let you read from there…

“Over-specialization, that’s the trouble,” the artificer explained with a gulp from his mug.  “Oh, I could make you a shield proof even against the fires of the great winged serpent Qhxtctlhx, and that would have been a feat worth noting, but that some little git over in Atchl — and isn’t that just conveniently-located! — set up shop doing nothing but fireproofing shields.  He’s got a whole new way to classify dragon’s breath and magma giants and all sorts of elemental effluvia, and he writes it all into a numerical scale named after himself, and he’s got a deal with the local shield-maker and now all of a sudden if you’re going after Qhxtctlhx it’s off to Atchl with you, because nothing else will do, and never mind all the talented Artificers looking for work!”  A fierce grimace contorted his face, and having finished his own drink, he swallowed most of Alex’s instead as he beckoned for another.  “It’s like that all over.  There’s no room for a generalist anymore — and of course, it’s all the same to Qhxtctlhx, who just waits for them to raise their shields in front of their faces so he can tangle their legs with his rainbow-scaled tail while they can’t see.  So the clever dick with the fireproofing concession stays in business, and Qhxtctlhx stays fed, and I took a job making teapots that sing instead of whistling and ovens for window-gardeners — they bake bread made with flowers,” he added, for Alex’s benefit, seeing her confused expression.  Another gusty sigh smelled less like cinnamon and more like beer.

Personal Pages: Revisiting RPGs

I think it’s the current deep investment in writing a book that is both adolescent and fantastical that made me think of tabletop roleplaying games again — that, or some of my old scourcebooks were in the pile I had to move hastily when the cat threw up my shoelace; either-or.  The point is, I did play nerdy RPG-type games in high school, which didn’t actually interfere much with having a normal social life; I got both laid and drunk on a regular basis (though usually not simultaneously).  And while the last thing I need in my life is another commitment that demands both time and creative energy, I gotta admit that there’s a certain whimsy to the whole thing that seems to fit well with twenty-somethings — we’re the post-ironic generation, it’s okay for us to sit around and drink beer and pretend to be psychic dinosaurs if that’s what we want to do with our evening.  We will listen to Deerhoof while we do it, and be very hip.

I can’t ever imagine myself going back to weekly games that run at the same time on the same day every week (sometimes we had three or four of those going on at once!), but I can totally see getting people together every once in a while and fixing them supper so we can nerd it up.  I even found some titles in amongst the old books that seem like they might go beyond mindless entertainment and be an actual enjoyable creative exercise — I’ve listed a few champs here, and saved my absolute favorite for last (so you can just scroll down if you really wanna know):

Dungeons and Dragons is of course the progenitor for all modern nerd games; I actually got an early start for my generation and was playing D&D a year or two before 3rd Edition, but I think for most of my peers those are the iconic roleplaying books.  I’ve got the 3.5 versions up here, just the three core books, and while I don’t see it as a system I’d want to get very into, I think there’s value in every once in a while getting back to your roots and playing it pulp for the sake of playing it pulp.  “You enter a 10 x 10 room.  There is an orc guarding a chest.  No one knows why…”

HackMaster is essentially a mechanical representation of exactly that tongue-in-cheek approach to the conventions D&D established; it is needlessly complex, absurdly focused on killing things and taking their stuff as the sole means of advancement in power and in society, and features a sprawling, eight-volume compendium of monsters with no possible ecological justification.  It also numerically represents and rewards swaggering, braggartly behavior and general badassitude of the sort that needs made-up macho words like “badassitude” to describe it, because it’s just that silly.  It will always be one of my old favorites, but I think that it’s too mechanically-complex to be worthwhile when you can achieve the same effect by approaching D&D with equal silliness and save yourself a lot of dice-rolling.  Still, it’s a fantastic example of parody-writing that uses structural elements as well as the written text in its mockery.

Vampire: the Requiem was the last roleplaying book I ever bought, along with the core rules for the new World of Darkness, way back when they were first released.  I never did much with it, outside of a couple one-nighters in undergrad, but it’s just as focused on storytelling and character-driven plots as all the old White Wolf games were — often to the point of pretentiousness — and is probably the best option if I want to be thinking hard about dramatic choices.  I fear that it’s also less fun — getting together to pretend to be very serious, emotionally-distraught sorts of people doesn’t seem like a good sell for the Deerhoof crowd, or anyone over the age of eighteen that I want to spend any amount of time with.  Still, the world and the people in it are pretty…

World of Warcraft offers the potential for hilarious campaigns if all the players are familiar with the online game, but isn’t very useful otherwise.  I don’t think I’d have any interest in running or playing in a World of Warcraft tabletop game that didn’t attempt to incorporate all of the shortcomings of the online world, but could see myself having a great time playing an orc or a troll or whatever that was truly dedicated to studying why the damn dragons “respawn” five minutes after you kill them!

The generic systems — GURPS or the Hero System 5th Edition — are obviously the most strenuous creative exercise, requiring everything to be built from scratch and then translated into the game mechanics.  They’re also the most complicated, and therefore likely to languish on my shelf for a while.

Children of the Sun was an impulse purchase that I’ve never regretted.  It’s a beautifully-illustrated book and a well-created world (and I say that as someone who generally doesn’t like well-created worlds, but was impressed this time around), and it carved out a niche that no one else had occupied and even made up a name for it, sort of, slapping a “dieselpunk” label on the setting, which can be safely read as “WWII with elves.”  The mechanics are a little unwieldy, but at least novel, and I’d like to visit this one in more depth some time — I never did much beside read the book.

And then there’s my absolute favorite candidate for getting back into this stuff — are you ready for it?

Rifts.  That’s right, Rifts — if you’ve heard of it, your opinion of me just lessened; if you’ve never heard of it, you’re missing a treat.  Taken seriously, I think it’s probably idiotic — in fact, I played in some pretty idiotic Rifts campaigns back in high school.  But no other system not only allows but encourages you to play a cybernetic wizard who rides into battle against a T-Rex on a flying motorcycle.  Or rides into battle against a flying motorcycle on a T-Rex.  Or whatever!  It’s the ultimate pastiche RPG; if there’s a trope you want to throw in, you probably can.  And the main villains are basically post-apocalyptic Nazis, and they use robotic skeletons and armor with skull motifs and such, so as the hero you get to cut your way through legions of zombie Nazis.  It doesn’t get much mookier than that!  (A “mook,” for the uninitiated, is a faceless underling that serves the single purpose of dying before the heroes’ blazing guns — think stormtroopers in Star Wars or the Foot Clan in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill Part I were a deliberate homage to all the mooks that ever mooked).  Rifts also features an incredibly simplified combat system (“roll over a 4 on a twenty-sided die to hit your target, or over 12 to hit them in a specific place” is a good summary), which is terrible for anyone with expectations of hard-hitting realism and therefore perfect for me.

So who knows.  If there’s folks in town who are interested, and I don’t have to work too hard at it, it may be time to revisit the old silliness, with tongue firmly in cheek.  As mentioned above, I’m not exactly hurting for creative outlets — but I might benefit from a low-stress creative outlet, or at least one that doesn’t punish me with anything worse than smart remarks from friends if my output isn’t very good.  As long as I can avoid becoming one of those writers who thinks “man, that Rifts game last night was awesome, and wouldn’t my character be totally sweet in a novel…?”

I’m pretty sure I can.

Writing Life: Addendum to the Previous Post

Tonight I almost had a character already described as “listing a little” (from drinking too much) order himself cocoa, but abandoned it as obscure and obnoxious even for me.

Writing Life: Things I Should Feel Guilty About (but don’t)

For our anniversary yesterday, my O Best Beloved (who we actually call O Stressed Beloved most days) gave me a book I had never heard of, which I have not read yet.  It is called The Interrogative Mood, subheaded “a novel?”, and consists entirely of questions.

That is what can safely be called a “gimmick,” in the same vein as stories which can be read and make logical sense starting at the first word and going forward or starting at the last word and reading backward, so it’s a well-chosen present; even when I’m disappointed by the lack of other content, I appreciate a good bit of linguistic gymnastics.  I’ve been known to inflict poetry with private jokes embedded in the punctuation on friends in the past, and of course Tom Stoppard’s immortal “questions” scene has been a favorite since my first encounter with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. And then there’s a fondness for metrical or rhythmic stresses with significance beyond aesthetic concern (these are hard to explain, even with examples, without getting very wordy — I’ve tried several times at this point).

Thinking back on previous writing, I’m remembering at least the following self-indulgent puns and mechanical twists from my own pen, which I should probably feel a bit guilty about but don’t:

- The line “Run away from home with Tom — – ” in a poem, where the double em-dashes were not simply a rhythmic signifier or stylistic flourish, but represented the missing, final four letters of a specific person’s name.

- The line “But oh!  The longing of my heart for poetry!” at the conclusion of a Shakespearean sonnet, where the “longing” literally lengthens the conclusion two syllables beyond the format.

- A deliberately-phallic combination of a colon and an em-dash at the end of a line of poetry.  Type it out and you’ll see what I mean; I prefer to think of this as an homage to artists like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift (both of whom produced works where the shape of the type was part of the composition) rather than as the creeping influence of vulgar emoticons and ASCII (which association hadn’t occurred to me at the time of writing).

- The use of the phrase “the ideal sans detail” to describe a post-apocalyptic character’s understanding of the engraving on the front of the Art Institute of Chicago (during a recent rebranding campaign, a new font called “ideal sans” was created for use on museum signage).

- Misuse of the word “recursive” in a sentence with recursive imagery:  “The river jumped and sparkled like a silver fish, and the fish in it jumped and sparkled like a silver river as it wrote elegant, recursively-scripted nonsense across the page of the countryside.”

And those are actually just the ones that came to mind as I was sitting here saying “hm, what might be a fun thing to blog about?”  So I’m sure there’s more lurking in there somewhere, but why give all the good ones away up front?  Read my stuff.  Write me and tell me when you’ve found something that stands out; chances are I’ll have forgotten about it, and be tickled to see it again.  Maybe I’ll even get ambitious and update this post!

Blogging Basics: “About the Author” Updates

Updated the “About the Author” page a touch; some of the items under “Projects” had gotten pretty outdated, and a few things weren’t there at all.  I think my instinctive keeping everything close to the chest until it’s polished and complete, if still in need of criticism and editing, works against the whole display-yourself-for-potential-employers aspect of blogging — looking back over some posts and the “About the Author” page, I do seem to be a little cagey about what the actual content of some of these projects is like.

Mostly, that’s just coming from my automatic assumption that people are only interested in news of note.  I never have anything interesting to say when people ask about my other jobs, either; it always feels like “eh, they’re going.”  The writing’s going.  If it goes somewhere (like a publication), I’ll talk about it; ’til then, it seems like not the sort of thing to encourage people to come look at.  All of which defeats the purpose of an internet presence, which is supposed to be kind of thrusting yourself into the public eye…I’m just not part of the MySpace generation, clearly.

Really, I just need to get a couple of stories run, and then I can say “look, I wrote these things, but you’ll have to go to this publication’s website and give them money to read it”…makes sure only the people who really care wind up seeing it, and supports the folks that are running my stories beside!  So expect those links just as soon as the miracle happens.

Short post today, because I’ve already talked about this subject before, and because I’ve been on a roll with some other writing but pretty frustrated with the blog lately.  No specific problems, just general writers’ block every time I sit down to post something.  It doesn’t seem to have crept into other writing yet, so I’m counting my blessings and getting back to that for now!

Personal Pages: One Of Those Days

Every once in a while, you get one of those days where all you do is stare at blank pages, and maybe write a line or two down and then tear the whole thing off and crumple it up.  Today is one of those days.  I would riff on that subject for a while and go into thinking about the whole creative process and such, but, well, it’s one of those days.  We’ll just pretend I gave up blogging for Lent.

Only not really, because there’ll be another post Friday.

…this Friday, not the Good one.

Personal Pages: A Pony Story at Last

Last night, after we came home from The Princess and the Frog (we are poor, and so we go to movies at the months-later, three-dollar theater), my girlfriend suggested that I write “The Princess and the Frog Was a Good Movie, by Five Year Old Geoffrey” and come to bed.  I was all “murr, should work now,” and then I fell asleep, waking up just long enough to mumble something about getting up with her and writing it in the morning.  I should have taken her advice, is the moral of this story, because it’s now ten in the morning on Monday and the “Five Year Old Geoffrey” approach is still seeming like a good one.

In defense of my childish alter-ego, I am pretty good at short, entertaining things like pony stories, bathroom wall doggerel, and nursery rhymes for the people in my life:

Good-night booze, good-night shoes,

good-night flamingos at the zoo

and good-night to the Laura, who always chews.

The upshot of this is that going to bed with Laura doesn’t actually relieve the creative muscle much or lead to a huge amount of extra sleep, since she asks for pony stories and chews if she doesn’t get them, but it does make me feel a little comfortable about inflicting my blog with said improvisations.  It’s not quite the same thing written, of course — I’ve actually been meaning to explore the difference between making up stories on the spot for an audience versus writing them for a while, now, and haven’t ever gotten it to come out right — but whatever, people liked the “teddy bears and chick razors” story too.

For a long time (and still occasionally) I kept a much less formal online journal under the moniker of “spokenstory,” with the implication that I would save it for content that would be spoken if my readers and I were in the same geographic location, transcribed as accurately as possible for online reading, but I think I wound up breaking from that goal a fair amount — there’s definitely some poetry in there that had the benefit of a few re-writes, at the very least.  Some of them in class, which my professors hopefully mistook for notes, but probably didn’t (certainly the pretentious jerk from the college “publishing” group noticed; he always bugged me about submitting).

But I still try to at least pretend that I can rattle off a good story from the top of my head, even if my star performances remain more in the line of recitation, riffing on the general theme of Kipling stories I heard so many times in my childhood that I know them down to the punctuation marks, or campfire-appropriate poems like the immortal Cremation of Sam McGee.  Sometimes it doesn’t quite work out, especially late at night with just Laura and me for an audience, and I think that’s because I’m dumping so much more creative energy into writing instead, but I’m not quite ready to part with the “spokenstory” label and ideal just yet.

I think this turned out to be the long-promised pony stories post, didn’t it?  That could have worked out worse.

Writing Life: Words I Apparently Made Up

Did you know that the spellcheck on Microsoft Word highlights “spellcheck” as not-a-word?  Tip of the iceberg.  I keep double-checking my spelling on all kinds of red-underlined words as I type, and half the time it turns out that not only is the word processor’s limited dictionary unfamiliar with what I’ve used, it’s not in the Oxford online dictionary either (though I do occasionally get told “that word is only available in our larger, paid-subscription version” or words to that effect, which I guess is something).  Below are just a few samples of things that I felt perfectly comfortable with, but apparently aren’t words…

“thuswise” — An admittedly affected word, I’m including this on the list anyway, since I used it in narration and not just in some character or other’s colorful dialogue.

“bandshell” — You know, like a stage, but with a thingie around it?  People play gigs in them at fairs and festivals and stuff?  I dunno, I really thought this one was kosher.

“masterless” — Webster’s Online at least is willing to say that this one exists in the larger, subscription-only dictionary.  But I find it odd that the more limited dictionaries don’t have it; it seems pretty basic.

“mothertongue” — I tried putting a space in there, but it’s a single concept.  One word suits it better; I don’t care what the dictionaries think.

“freakshow” — Another one that spell checks and dictionaries just seem to need a space in.  And, like “mothertongue,” another one that I’m uncomfortable separating when it’s the concept I want to get across.

“multitool” — There’s one on my belt, for crying out loud.

“edenic” — Webster’s has it as a sub-item under “Eden,” but Word has no clue.

“spasming” — I actually can’t believe this isn’t a word already.  I mean, it seems pretty self-explanatory.  But not only does Microsoft Word not like it, it’s not even in Webster’s Online, as a variation under “spasm” or on its own…

“refastenable” — It’s amazing what a difference sticking a prefix or suffix on will make.  Webster’s doesn’t know it either, so it’s not just Word lacking all the possible permutations.

“looseleaf” — If I hyphenate it, the dictionary knows it as a sort of paper, but really, what else do you call tea that’s, you know…loose leaves?

“limnic” — As in “of or related to lakes.”  Someone who studies lakes is a limnologist.  I think this one’s totally a word.

“precognizance” — I think I might have actually made this one up, mostly.  “Precognition” is a real word, but I feel like it refers too specifically to the overall ability, rather than a single instance of knowing the future — a “precognizance.”  I’m sure Gilbert and Sullivan would have cheerfully used it if they’d needed a rhyme for “recognizance,” and that’s good enough for me.

“efforting” — Another one that’s probably genuinely not a word.  But I think it’s a useful very one — I know I’ve efforted in the past.

…and I’m sure there’s more; this was just what I turned up with fifteen minutes or so of scrolling aimlessly through my stories, looking for anything highlighted in red.  Seriously, though, you’d think they’d at least program “spellcheck” in as a word…

Writing Life: Magic does not have a formula

How do you make a magical world magical?  I’m trying very hard.  Sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it does not.  But I’ve figured out this much:

First off, forget about all that consistent-world nonsense.  If someone can sit down and write a Comprehensive and Licensed Guide to Your Fairyland, it isn’t very magical.  Stop worrying about whether the Bull-Men of the Forgotten Plains have the same gestation period as humans or as cows (they’re about the same, incidentally).  That is the sort of world-building question that just fascinated J. R. R. Tolkien and his various imitators, and they all wrote really boring books.

Second off, stop thinking about what’s going on in the text — this includes the plot — and obsess about how it sounds.  Poetry is magic, magic is poetic, there’s a reason that rhyming couplets caught on as a poor man’s textual flag for “spells being cast here,” and every piece of text that describes a magical world should have a drop of poetry in it.

Puns are also magical.  In most literature they are low humor at best; in Fairyland they’re a reminder that every word has more than one meaning.  Don’t flag them in the text, and for god’s sake don’t have a character cracking puns as jokes, but use words that could be interpreted multiple ways every chance you get — a sphinx says something catty about a rival, a dryad barks an angry curse; a brown beetle boring its way into the trunk of a tree delivers a monotonous filibuster to the Beetle Council.  It’s fire-and-forget whimsy, and it should be a part of your arsenal.

Leave the fourth wall where it is; it’s holding up the roof just fine.  Characters in a fairy story ruminating on being characters in a fairy story was edgy when Peter S. Beagle did it in 1968, but so were men with long hair.

Dreams have no transitions, and neither should your prose, unless you’re trying to break the dream-like quality of the world (which there are perfectly valid reasons for doing; just be sure to have them).  It’s possible that this post is suffering a bit from my adherence to that rule.  Still, think of all the “additionaly”s  I saved you reading.

Beautify, beautify, beautify.  Remember every heartbreaking thing you see and write it down to use later.  I heard a halyard ringing against its flagpole in the snow today; someone’s eyes can be as lonely as that sound at some point.  It’s a synesthesiac comparison, which makes it even better.  Mine experiences of the senses ruthlessly.  Strike out any comparisons that make direct logical sense as being too our-worldly; a voice as warm as a welcoming hearthfire is blah.  Make it a voice as warm as a favorite uncle’s snore instead.

Adverbs are the enemy.  Adverbs are always the enemy (I should really write a post about that), but they’re especially the enemy when your text is already loaded with description.  They just slow things down and sound flowery (like right there), and if you’re choosing verbs so boring that they have to be done in a particular way, they need to be replaced anyway.  Re-read that last sentence but say “they frankly need to be replaced” instead, and you’ll see what I mean.  Nouns are the heaviest-hitting kind of word, and short, simple verbs are nearly as good; play clean-up with a good team of adjectives and keep the bottom-feeding “-ly” words as scarce as possible.

A surprising number of people give a fuck about an Oxford comma (it’s a song, if the vulgarity seems gratuitous), but they make the prose seem more like it was written by your fourth-grade Language Arts teacher and less like a record of the impossible.  Was there ever a less artistic approach to language than the one they taught in those classes?  Don’t rely on it.

As a corollary to the above, don’t break rules for the sake of being different.  Every syllable your spider-queen speaks can sound like a thousand cobwebs snapping all at once, but she still doesn’t need little dashes setting her dialogue off instead of quotation marks, and I will personally slap you if it is italicized.

Rave a little.  Miss sleep; eat irregularly.  You can’t write a world of madness without going a little mad.  If your blog suffers, that’s the price you pay for taking your own advice!

And save everything, no matter how much re-reading it makes you want to delete it and also kill yourself.  Fill the margins with edited comments along the lines of “why, oh why, god, did you let me think this was a good word to use” if you must, but keep it, and look at it after a few days have lessened the shame a little.  If nothing else, it will keep you humble, and we should all be humble before magic.

Personal Pages: Lost and Found

Some of you may remember me mentioning losing a journal a while back; as with most things in my life, “lost” turned out to mean “somewhere in the apartment that I will never think of” (in this case, neatly tucked into the pocket of the long wool coat that I only wear to fancy events).  I thought I would celebrate by running through a laundry-list of all the things that I lost, and have now found again — this should also give you a good picture of how my journals are (un)organized for day-to-day use.  For example, the Fall 2009 journal:

– Fourteen pages of unbroken draft:  a short story about post-apocalyptic drifters who make a living catering to a fashion market hungry for pre-apocalyptic clothes, especially anything “Made in China” or other places now inaccessible and mostly-mythical.

– Three pages of re-written start for the same story.

– Ten pages of draft for the “operatic” story, in its very early form; not much similarity to the current version beyond setting.

– Two pages that I think were the first writing I ever did on the somewhat dark, fairy-themed youth-fantasy story that I’m now working on very seriously, which also bear very little similarity to the current form.

– Two more pages of re-writing the same first scene of the fairy story.

– A page-long “Use This Somehow” scribble; these are just occasional flashes that pop into my head as good writing, but totally unrelated to anything I have going on.

– Another UTS scribble:  “He stood in indecision, unable to determine whether his legs were colder than his feet and therefore he should put his pants on before his socks, or vice versa.”  We’ve all been there, right?

– Ten pages of re-written “operatic” story, from the beginning.

– Seven pages of another from-the-beginning rewrite of same.

– Four pages of continuation of the fairy story, picking up where the last listed draft left off.

– Fourteen pages of draft starting a story set on the mythical “Wabash Cannonball,” the hobo train built by Paul Bunyan’s brother and serving the “Eastern Michigan, Ireland, Jerusalem, and Australia” line.  Still a setting and idea that I want to return to, but I’m leery of adding more to my plate right now.

– Two scribbled reminders to post random observations that popped into my head onto my old LiveJournal, back-to-back, one of which I did.

And then I lost it for two months, give or take.  Keep in mind that I use small journals, so a “page” is only a quarter-page or so of typewritten text; do the math and you can see that the output into these things is not ferocious.  Mostly they’re just for scribbling in on the go, waiting for someone at a bar or whatever, so it’s often more of a sketched reminder or a very fast draft that helps me get the plot onto the page before I forget it at the expense of the language, which I can fix later.  The various things listed above aren’t separated by anything more glamorous (or helpful) than a couple of horizontal lines slashed across the page; sometimes there will be a double line in the middle of one of them, indicating that I stopped writing for a while and started right where I’d left off.  The cover says “Fall 2009″ in really faded ink (it’s not a material that takes ink well, apparently; I’ve re-written it about five times and it’s still super-pale), but beyond that there’s no dates or times.

But it was fun to revisit, and there’s some things in there that I’ll still put to use — the “operatic” and fairy stories have both progressed into different enough creatures that I don’t need the drafts of them, but I’ll revisit others.  The fashion-hunting one in particular has the possibility to turn into a nice, creepy, running-from-radioactive-mutants bit of pulp if I stick my tongue good and hard into my cheek, which, again, I hope to do when I’ve got the current project load cleared up a bit.  Stay tuned!

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