Dead and Counting

(I will never pretend that I have any true gift for poetry, because I haven’t. But what I have is pain and rage and choking helplesness and grief. And this is its outlet.

Please forgive its every flaw and the person who was alive to make them. The only thing that matters is those who are lost, and those who are hurt, and those who are now both.)

 

Dead and Counting

You were dead in a roar of thunder
Before your body fell
And the body beside you
And the next and the next.
You died laughing, or screaming,
Or crying out to Jesus or Allah or Shiva
“Why” or “Please” or “No”
But no one saved you.
You died in a hail of hatred.

You did not die alone.
And one tragedy becomes two
Becomes twenty
Becomes too many
And the street is red
And the lights flash blue
And no one wants to score the dead.

There will come reasons, shouting,
“It’s your fault, you people!”
“It’s you who are to blame!”
But the blame we parade on sets and soundbites
Doesn’t kill the tears or the pain
Doesn’t cure the nightmares of those
Whose hands knew blood that night.

And we forget to blame hatred.
We forget.
Again we forget.

We light candles and sing
Signs and flowers and wreaths
We change banners and pictures
We hashtag our pain and prayers
We say we will remember
But we hate and teach hate and grow hate
And the candles are not soft memories now.
They are become the start of the next wildfire.

Forgive our tears
That we mean today
And will forget tomorrow.
Forgive our candles, our songs,
Our momentary grief
That will last in your bones.
We died tonight
Or yesterday
In any hail of hatred
And only still live by forgetting

You died,
You,
Whose name we do not know.
But you died in a war
Not between lines on a map
But within the human soul —
You died and we died with you.
We are your blood, cold on the street.

But you do not know this.
You do not have to know.
You already know.

You were dead in a roar of thunder
Before your body fell
And the body beside you
And the next and the next.
You died laughing, or screaming, or sobbing
Or crying out to Jesus or Allah or Shiva
“Why” or “Please” or “No”
But no one saved you.
We all die in a hail of hatred.

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My GPS Winning Entry!

Since the GPS competition seems to be having trouble getting the version of my story up on their site, I figured I would post it here.  I know there aren’t a whole lot of you reading this, but some of you have expressed interest in knowing exactly what story won me the contest, and I really want to see what you think of it!

So, without any further ado, here is the tale of DIOGENES THE GOAT, Scott Imes Award winner for 2017!

Continue reading “My GPS Winning Entry!”

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ANNOUNCEMENT!!!

This is something I’ve been waiting a long while to celebrate, and since it’s actually also the week of my birthday, this is the time!

I am OFFICIALLY an award-winning author!!!

Back in the spring, I entered a local writing contest run by the Geek Partnership Society, which is a fantastic alliance of geeks and geekdom in the Twin Cities.  I had dithered about what kind of story to write for them and actually started two different works, but ultimately settled on “Diogenes the Goat.”  And I won!

I actually won the Scott Imes Award, which is an extra special honor given that it is named for one of the great patrons of science fiction and fantasy literature in the area.  To win the contest was one thing, but to be granted an award naming someone that geeks in the area almost unanimously revere is something else.

My story will be posted here for those who wish to read it or enter the contest themselves.

Now that I’ve got this contest under my belt, I guess it’s time to see what I can do about publishing the next.  But now, when I query a novel or submit a short story to a magazine, I get to be “K.M. Clantoren, winner of the Scott Imes Award.”

I have no words but thanks.   And YAY!!!!!!!

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Happy Eclipse Day!

I did get a neat picture with my phone during the eclipse — the clouds parted just in time:

I wanted to say, for those 6 people who read this site, that I’m sorry for not posting and I’m sorry for spamming all the backdated stuff.  This is nearly the last of it.  See, I realized at some point that my lack of posting was actually making it harder to post, and it went around and around until even considering typing out an entry was overwhelming.  So the only way to get through it, I decided, was to sit down and remedy the whole situation all at once before I could talk myself out of it, and then I wouldn’t have a great 3-month void to contend against going forward.

Writing this year has been hard.  I’ve done well in bursts, but not well overall.  I can finish short works, or I can alternate between works, but sustaining writing has been tough.  In July I started another original novel, but I gave it up a week or two ago and put it on the back burner.  However, that decision did seem to help and I’ve written more consistently since then, working on a short fanfic novel.

I also stepped away from Twitter for the same duration of time I stepped away from this blog.  There was just too MUCH there.  Too much anxiety, too much ugliness.  And I couldn’t balance the world on my shoulders while stumbling over marbles, so I put the marbles away to focus on the weight that really mattered.  It helped.  My anxiety and my distraction-prone lack of focus decreased significantly.

I’m back to the blog now, and I hope to keep at it.  I’m back to Twitter only in bursts when I really feel like I can keep it compartmentalized and away from the rest of my head.  But the writing will always come first.  And if it’s a choice between writing a chapter and writing a blog entry, the chapter will win every single time.

Still, I’ll try to do better.

This whole year has felt like an eclipse, like there’s just a deep shadow that blocks out light and energy and everything else.  Maybe it’s temporary, and then we get some light back, but those moments of darkness feel endless.

Art is my lantern, keeping the warmth and light alive until the shadow passes over.

Time to light the lantern once more.

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I think we can file this under “Unqualified Success”

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

— C.S. Lewis, from “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”

Anyone who has read much on this blog or who knows me outside of it knows that my love for writing and, of course, reading, does not only extend to “great literature.”  It extends deeply into stuff which ranges from “published but silly” to “fanfiction and supremely silly.”  I’ve read Shakespeare and Ovid and Bronte, and loved them, but I’ve also read stories written by 13-year-olds about cartoon characters and loved those, too.

Sometimes a person just needs to love what they love without feeling bad about it.

And that’s not just about people of varying gender expressions.

It’s about EVERYTHING.

When I was 5, I was introduced to the cartoon Rainbow Brite.  It’s a perfect show for kids in that age-range, and it hooked me completely.  But what came as a great consternation to my parents was that I CONTINUED to love it long past age 5.  They felt it was too childish for me, not advanced enough for my growing age, intelligence, and awareness.  They worried that it would stunt me to love something aimed at barely-out-of-toddlerdom.

What they couldn’t understand was that the only thing which could stunt me was to prevent me from loving the thing I loved.  And still love.  Though differently.

Rainbow Brite is not epic, Nobel-worthy work, but it has great value.  It was the first cartoon I ever saw as a child which was uncompromising in its feminism and egalitarianism.  Rainbow goes on a quest as ambitious as any Frodo or Taren or Luke Skywalker or Aladdin or Indiana Jones.  She defeats an evil monster on her own and wins rule over a kingdom which she is charged to defend against further evil.  She accepts the responsibility for caring for the planet Earth as a daily job — while her friends are playing games or having fun, she goes to her daily work of keeping the Earth beautiful and filled with joy.  The only times her gender ever comes up is in contrast to a few boy characters who argue that her competence is somehow lessened by her being a girl, which she promptly proves to be wrong.  Rainbow outsmarts various villains, enters into magical “combat” without backup, saves the universe, and continues to carry the mantle of leader and ruler and joy-bringer.  She has friends who help her, she has allies who fight with her, but she never needs to be saved or rescued from the harshness she herself is sworn to defeat.

Yes, of course, sometimes there are dumb episodes or setups.  Yes, of course, there are aspects of the story which can be problematic (or downright confusing for anyone who actually tries to reason out her capacity to ride a horse in the actual void of space at speeds that would make Star Trek engineers faint).  Yes, it is still a cartoon aimed at little girls.

But it has great value.  It set me up to believe that if you work hard, if you are willing to sacrifice and do the right things, if you hold onto joy and hope, you can do anything.  Even if you’re a girl.  Is there any doubt why I loved it?  And why it stuck with me for so long?

More and more, mainstream movies and media are realizing that it is not only possible to make childrens’ programming accessible and enjoyable to adults, but it is profitable.  It’s not just about dropping one or two jokes into a movie to shore up parents stuck watching something with their toddlers.  It’s about making art which works on various levels for everyone.  Some of the best movies of the last few years are traditionally for kids, but have been touted and loved by adults; Pixar in particular is incredibly good at this.  Think about Up, Inside Out, Toy Story 3.  Yes, movies for the PG crowd.  But it was adults who bawled their eyes out while their kids laughed at the fart jokes.

If you investigate the fanfiction I write, you’ll find it’s mostly cartoons.  Some anime, which has much fuzzier lines of adult vs kid content, and some live-action “grown up” shows, but mostly I stick to American cartoons.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of my most active fandoms.  Mighty Max, a show literally invented to sell plastic toys to 8-year-old boys is one of the closest things to my heart — ever.  I have written stories for Rainbow Brite (of course I have) and Teddy Ruxpin, and I’ve spent time carving out an entire mythology to go along with their worlds to explain what threads are left hanging by the originals.

The fact of my deep love for what one could easily call “childish” stuff does not, however, mean it is wrong.  The fact that these cartoons for kids not out of kindergarten give me profound, life-affirming joy, is not wrong or demeaning or indicative of some kind of immaturity.

Because really?  All it means is that these things have what I need in the moment I need it.

Sometimes you want complexity, deep political messages, complex sexual tensions.  There’s lots of places to get those between books, TV, movies, and the internet.  Sometimes you need something gritty and too real and bloody just to help you see your own world clearly.

But I think there’s a great mistake in thinking ONLY those things can entertain, can offer value, can hold you up.  If you count on Game of Thrones to alleviate all your worries about the real world, I fear you’re going to be in trouble.  GOT may have many amazing messages and things to say, but it is not necessarily going to be a comfort.  Not all the time.

Sometimes, comfort is what you need more than anything.

If it hasn’t been obvious from the last few weeks of my posts, I’ve really been struggling here in 2017 with my anxieties and depression.  I’ve swung back and forth between an empty apathy even to the things I truly and always love, and a dark despair edging close to danger.  I’ve had enormous difficulty finding the clarity and calm inside myself to write, to sing, to want to engage any part of me that’s real in a world I don’t want to be in.  To live creatively, you have to live with your chest torn open and your heart bared to every slice of wind and ice and iron that flies around in the wider world.  I don’t think it’s possible to be an artist and to also be immune to the world in which your art emerges.

At this time in 2016, I had written about 143,500 words.  In 2015 I was at 118,650; in 2014 I was around 131,260.  This year?  2017?  I’m somewhere around 76,000 — a little bit more than half what I did last year.  And they aren’t all complete stories, either; for every one that I’ve actually finished, I have another I began but just couldn’t pull all the way together.  It’s been enormously frustrating and vexing.  It isn’t a block and it isn’t lack of interest or discipline.  This is anxiety and depression, pure and simple.

And for me, for me personally, the only cure I’ve ever had to get me writing even in the midst of my worst downturn, is a shock of joy and love.

Early in 2015, I was in a dark place.  It was different from here, tinged with far more depression and far less existential anxiety, but it was no less damaging or dangerous.  And yet I still wrote 118,650ish words in the first months of the year.  How?  By writing in fandoms that fed me when nothing else did.  More than anything else, I needed Donatello and Quatre and Max.  I needed them like I needed air, and nothing else worked.  I needed them because they fed bright happiness into the dark well that was dragging down everything else inside me.

This year, I turned to them again, but they just didn’t hold me.  I wrote a bit and petered out just as quickly.  What I needed this year was something else, something new.  Something I had yet to find.

So I floundered.  I pushed and tried to write in familiar fandoms and unfamiliar ones.  I let my new discovery of and love for the show Leverage carry me for a while.  I went back to my TTSA ‘verse and put an AU spin on it so I could put psychics into Jaegers.  I started several works that have been on my to-do list because they helped bandage up the parts of me that are bleeding.  It wasn’t enough, but it was something.

Anybody with depression or anxiety will tell you that something, even if it isn’t halfway to everything, can keep you afloat.  Even a twig is better than nothing if it’s all you have to keep you from drowning.  I made a basket of my twigs and I clung to them.

Because eventually, if you hold on long enough and keep fighting the water and keep looking for alternatives, eventually a life raft will come into view.  You might have to break yourself in half to reach it, but when you do, you’ll get out.  You’ll be okay.  You’ll have something strong enough and stable enough to carry you through the storm.

I’ll try to talk about that part more some other time.

Because now, mostly thanks to the FX channel running a bunch of wacky movies together on a night when I was too listless to do anything else but sit and stare, I have found something new to hold onto, something new to cherish and fill me with effortless joy.

Yes.  It is stupid.  It’s a movie fandom made for 8 year-olds.  It’s a movie that didn’t even do particularly well at the box office or with the reviews it received.

But it struck just the right tone, hit all the right emotional notes and dramatic points for me.  It made me laugh; it filled me with ideas; and I’ve watched it 2.5 times in 3 days and can’t wait to watch it again.

As with all things that I find I suddenly love, that also meant my creativity burst open and a world of various new headcanons emerged.

(The last time this happened was when I discovered the TV show The Sentinel and I promptly wrote 4 novels and 14 short stories, almost 400,000 words in 8 months.)

Now, it’s not impossible that this new love will not prove quite enduring enough to hold out and the depression and anxiety will return all too soon.  But right now this child’s movie is exactly what I need to love in order to breathe.  I don’t care anymore if it’s “good” or not by some outside scale.  It’s good for me.  It’s holding me up.  It’s making me FEEL again.

So I’m not going to knock it.  Sometimes a person just needs to love what they love without feeling bad about it.

Right now, I just need to love a competent, charming, genius father and his clumsy, loyal, struggling-for-confidence son.

That love is keeping me together.  And I never would have found it if I had limited myself to “adult” shows and movies and books.  I never would have devoured every fanfic written about these characters I now adore and found myself desperately wanting more.  I found my mind firing at speed again, my heart pounding, and, of course, sighing with dramatic frustration as I realized that these ideas are not something I can tie up neatly in a oneshot.  Looks like I have another novel on the horizon.

There’s another C.S. Lewis quote for this part:

I wrote the books I should have liked to read. That’s always been my reason for writing. People won’t write the books I want, so I have to do it for myself.

–As quoted in C.S. Lewis, by Roger Lancelyn Green

Because when you really love something and it changes you, you want as much of it as you can get.  And if you create as a default approach to the world, it means you write the stories you want and need to exist for you to have.  I have wanted and needed so many stories, and they litter my fanfic portfolio.

(And sometimes other people need those stories, too.  That novel I’mma have to write at some point here?  It’s at least as much for Sarah, my wife and (in this case) more importantly, my beta.  I’m not the only one glomming onto this fandom.  I’m not the only one being fed happiness and betterment by it.  Which means she wants more of it, too.  And I can deny her absolutely nothing.  Blame any subsequent writings on her, if you would.  But credit them to me, of course.)

Rainbow Brite kept me together as a child and as I exited childhood, the example and beacon of the kind of person I could be if I lived without fear.  Mighty Max taught me to think about facing reality and having the courage to keep going even when there was blood on the floor and death on the horizon (yes, it’s for little boys but it is DARK; there’s a reason the Nightmare Fuel section on TVTropes for this show is FULL).  What began as youthful fannish squee became something real, something that influenced the way I think about myself and the life I can build.  Something that held me so completely, I could only add to it, create more of it, and offer it to anyone else with the same love and need.

I don’t know yet where this one will take me — I’m still in the fannish squee stage.  But it WILL take me somewhere, somewhere better than where I am right now.

And I haven’t cared about loving something meant for children since I was a child myself and holding onto the things that brought me joy even then.  Is it too young for me?  I dunno.  Is JOY too young for a person?  Helpless giggles at terrible puns?  How about simple, uncomplicated discussions about the meaning of family?

Sometimes a person just needs to love what they love without feeling bad about it.

I have a deep regard for this dog and his boy, and I finally feel better.

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Storming The Wrong Dungeon

If you’ve ever spent time on other blogs belonging to authors, whether multi-bestsellers or newbies or people who don’t write original fiction, you’ll be familiar with this idea.  I think it happens to all of us who write which, by the way, is incredibly comforting.  There’s not much worse than working alone in your head and wondering if your struggles are unique because you are just that unlucky.

I mean, they MIGHT be unique anyway.  Some of us really are just that unlucky.

But writing the wrong novel happens to us all, apparently.

And now I shall liken the work of an author to a D&D encounter.

Writing a story is like storming a fortress or a dungeon to kill a monster inside.  You have to prepare yourself, have all your tools ready and be in good health, physically and mentally.  Sometimes the hardest part is crashing the gate, making the first move, entering into the fight knowing that it won’t be over any time soon; and the fight itself gets harder once you’re inside, though the motivation to keep going gets easier when there’s no turning back.  But the dungeon has its own dangers, too — you can’t just bust down the door and expect an easy stroll to the end.  You have to know the lay of the land, the pitfalls and traps and distractions and false passages so you can stay on course.  You have to battle a hundred tiny things, or medium things, or huge things, just to get from one room to the next.

There comes a point when you want to give up and go home.  For me, that point often happens twice, at the 1/3rd mark and again later at the 3/4ths mark.  You get through the door and into the first floor and run into your first miniboss and…suddenly something in you starts to debate the merit of giving up.  But when you fight on, when you beat the entry-level problem, you feel better than ever and slam open the next door to keep going.  And sooner or later you’ll hit another miniboss much bigger than the first, and much more daunting.  It would be easier at that point to give up and retreat while you can.  Maybe come back someday and hope the monsters are all gone.

But they won’t be.  That’s not how monsters work.

So you shore up your courage and charge and, hopefully, emerge with another win.  And this victory is sweeter than the first because now you know there’s nothing between you and the end, the final monster, the big boss.  The scariest part of all.  And everything you’ve encountered and learned until this point becomes relevant.  The item you picked up in the first room comes in handy or spontaneously tears into you and you have to figure out how to use it or get rid of it before the final monster stomps you flat.  Even exhausted and wounded and low on supplies, you have to fight or accept that you came all this way for nothing.  You have to fight because the monster is RIGHT THERE and this was the point all along, wasn’t it?

So you fight.  And it might be ugly or it might be a cutscene of beauty, but you win.  You kill the monster and victory is yours.  The story is written.

(To continue this analogy, the editing process is very like trying to get out of the dungeon once you’ve beaten the big boss.  You still have to backtrack every place you’ve been, and sometimes you find whole sections you missed, hordes of monsters you woke up who have come to see what all the racket is about who want to end your journey before you ever make it back to the gates.  And sometimes the monsters you defeated aren’t quite dead and you have to handle them again.  But if you stick with it, even if you have to go the long way around, or even if you find out you have a whole additional big boss to fight before you can truly proclaim victory and escape.)

Sometimes you don’t get a say in which fortress you crash– either because you take contracts for specific jobs or because, frankly, a particular dungeon calls to you and you can’t and/or don’t bother to resist its siren song.  Sometimes you stomp around the forest for weeks looking for any damn tower to go invade.

And sometimes you get through the gates of one to realize that you are TOTALLY unequipped for what this particular dungeon will require.  And, really, discretion is the better part of valor — if you don’t want to end up resembling Adventurer Kitten-Chow, maybe you should back off, go find a fortress that fits your current state, and come back later.

That’s the story of me and the month of January.

As of right now, my overall average words-per-day production hovers around 1,720.  That’s including everything back to 2004, counting whole years where I didn’t produce anything, and counting the crazy 2-month period where I cranked out 100,000 words and about 4 oneshots.  Generally speaking, I can write a hell of a lot in a day when I set my mind to it.

But so far this January, up until yesterday, I was writing BUPKIS.  I was averaging no better than about 300 words in a day and producing those was like wringing blood from my feet.  It wasn’t lack of ideas — the project I had chosen to write had already been fully outlined, researched, and I even had most of my jokes in mind; I was truly only lacking for writing it all down.

But I just couldn’t do it.  All things being optimal and arranged for full productivity, and I could barely stand to type.

I kept trying to force it anyway, long after I figured out the root of the problem, partially because I’m stubborn and partially because sometimes that works out — sometimes I find I really can push through whatever mire has entrapped my creativity and can produce quality work even when it would be easier to extract each individual alveoli from my lungs with tweezers.

Sometimes it is a fortress for which I am genuinely not prepared, but I can go ahead anyway and pick up what I need along the way and be better for it.

If it is depression, a normal bipolar downswing which is impeding me, there are tricks that I have developed for myself to work in spite of the lack of innate energy in my mind.  If it is stress, I can turn to music, meditate for 5 minutes, and find my head cleared enough to proceed with work.  If it is lack of inspiration, well, then I saddle up and go hunting for the muse because it is NOT up to her when I write.

But this was not any of those things.

Or, rather, it was a combination of all three and more besides.

This time, it was a dungeon I genuinely was not going to defeat.

For reasons having to do with everything from the state of the world, ongoing political uncertainty, the freaking dreary winter, to no small amount of personal anxiety, my head and my story were simply not in the same place anymore.  The story I wanted to write is about betrayal, about entitlement, about guilt and regret and shame.  And those things were picking too close to everything else in my head.

I was a fire mage trying to beat a water dungeon and I was mostly just getting wet and cold and frustrated.

I couldn’t think about the story without thinking about everything else.  Which meant that the story I wanted to write was edging closer to the real world, and therefore it was losing its autonomy.  I would have done better if I were trying to write something that was directly parallel to what I was dealing with, or totally the opposite; either one would have gone better and allowed me to gain separation so I could focus on the story and not life.  My whole head was clogged up with a story that didn’t want to be written and an emotional/mental state that needed to be working on anything else at all, and they mashed up together as a giant knot of non-productivity.

Yesterday, when I finally admitted that, YES, this was the problem, and, NO, I wasn’t going to be able to deal with it this time, I abandoned the project that had barely progressed and opened the first chapter of a new one.  In about an hour I wrote more than I had in the previous week or more.

I went out and found a fortress of wind which could only make me stronger and I blew the gates open in one try.

I’ve had to teach myself that there’s nothing wrong with realizing that I’m going down the wrong path as long as I correct course.  I’m hard on myself when I feel like I screw things up, when I feel like I should have known better and gotten it right the first time.  But this isn’t a thing for which I should feel I’m at fault.  There is no fault.  There’s just a strategic retreat and locating a different avenue.

You’d think after 21 novels and 2.3 million words I’d be better at picking my fights.  I’d be able to assess my status and go “Eh, not up to that dungeon today.”  But, well.  Nobody’s perfect.

And, truthfully, sometimes you have to fight the wrong fight to figure out why it was wrong — or why it was right.

For example, I was most of the way through this blog post and I went, “Duh! I should do this as ‘your princess is in another castle’ instead of the D&D thing!”  And I thought about it.  And ultimately said, “Nope!”

Why?

Because the analogy of the princess is more like getting published after you slay the final monster.  You do all this work, kick all this butt, and you are rewarded with gold or a hug or whatever; personally, I’d hold out for knighthood; being a knight would RULE.  But the thing is that you can’t and shouldn’t assume there’s a princess in every fortress or dungeon waiting to reward you.  99.9% of the time, there isn’t anything at all at the end but the corpse of the final monster.  You have to charge into that fight for the sake of the fight itself and nothing else.  You take on a dungeon for the experience of battling monsters and winning.  That’s what makes you such a badass adventurer.

In this case, my analogy was right all along.  I went down a path, questioned it, and had to figure out why it was right along the way.  Just like I went down the wrong path with the story that would not go until I figured out that I was in the wrong place.

And I’m not sorry I lost most of the month in the wrong dungeon, not sorry I fought it and had to retreat.  Because it’ll be there when I’m ready, when I’m better equipped, when that fight needs fighting.  Plus, I’ve got this whole new fortress to tear apart and enjoy every moment doing it.  I spent most of the month in the wrong place, but now I’m exactly where I need to be and those monsters are going DOWN.

Roll your initiative.  Let’s get to work.

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Yuletide

Something I have discovered while writing as much fanfiction as I do is that the community around fic is ENORMOUS.  It is wide and vast and deep.  Whatever weird, obscure thing you love, there is somebody out there who loves it just like you, or maybe more.  Whatever bizarre crossover fills your heart with glee will cause someone else somewhere to die of delight.  This has always been true of fandom, and the internet has really opened up the world to expanding the ability of fans to connect and share.

(It’s not all roses.  There are trolls everywhere and fandom is absolutely no exception.  For everyone person you find who LOVES Thing X, you’ll find someone who HATES it just as much.  And for as many long, involved, and fulfilling discussions you can have with the person who loves Thing X, you might also be drawn into an argument or a dissection of Thing X with its opponent.  To say nothing of people throwing flames, being asshats, and generally taking Thing That Is Fun and covering it with shit.  It happens.)

Now, for as prolific as my writing has become, I’ve never been much of an “active” fan.  I never really joined sites or launched into forum discussions or attended meet-ups.  Some of this is my natural reticence.  But some of it may also be that, as usual, I have managed to slot myself into fandoms where it just doesn’t work — maybe because the fandom is 20 years old and people have moved on, or because the fandom is obscure enough that only 20 people in the whole world share it.

Lack of a community has never kept me from writing, of course.  (I can’t imagine much that would, really.)  But there is something uniquely satisfying about writing to an audience and KNOWING that they will be interested in what you have to share.  It wasn’t something I knew how to seek out, or even necessarily would have tried to, but then a friend introduced me to Yuletide.

Here’s some links should you want to read the meaty explanations:
yuletide-admin.livejournal.com/
https://fanlore.org/wiki/Yuletide
archiveofourown.org/collections/yuletide

In short, Yuletide is a massive exchange of obscure fandoms between fic writers.  People sign up in the fall and receive their assignments with several weeks to fulfill them so they can be delivered to their recipients on Dec 25th.  In return, if you sign up, you are guaranteed to receive a story in one of your chosen tiny fandoms of at least 1,000 words.  You sign up to write in some obscure fandoms and give a gift of your own as well.  And you know what?  I really, really enjoy it.

The first year I signed up for Yuletide, I was able to draw upon a recent fandom which I had revived in myself to the tune of 4 novels and 400,000+ words for a oneshot over 5,000 words long that I still think helped inform the way I think about that particular fandom even now.  The second year I went NUTS and wrote something like 25,000 words in two extremely long chapters (and, yes, I do have a novel sequel idea to follow up with someday; I just haven’t gotten there yet).

Both times, there was something very meaningful about writing a story I hoped would make someone’s season a little brighter.  We all have those fandoms we quietly love alone.  Yuletide was my chance to add a new breath of life and a new pillar into those tiny corners and hidden loves.  And I got to make a person happy at the same time!

Funnily enough, the two Yuletide gifts I received in those years were for the same obscure fandom, which, by the way, is TOTALLY FINE.  Both stories were very different and both made me puppy-in-the-first-snow happy to receive.  I also know that there are some participants in Yuletide who write extra stories so a few people come away with more gifts than just the one, but I’ve never done it myself.  I thought I might this year, and then November exploded.  But I have always been happy with receiving my one beautiful gift of writing and fandom love and I can’t wait to see what this year brings.

There’s a privilege in being able to write something to someone, and there is an equal privilege in being gifted a work born of someone’s heart.

My Yuletide 2016 entry was done a while ago, and I won’t say anything about it except that it made my beta-reader REALLY happy.  If it makes my recipient even half as happy, I’ll count it a very worthwhile expenditure of my efforts for the season.

There are some people who participate in fandom exchanges not only to give and receive, but also to find new authors and to be found in return — and I can say that I didn’t go into it looking for that, but it’s certainly worked out for me.  I’ve pretty much read everything by those who give me stories and liked most of it.  I’ve also searched the Yuletide collection for fandoms I know and found more gems to love and more authors to follow.    I can’t say if I’ve gained new readers/followers this way, but I’ve certainly gained new stories to enjoy.

And really?  When it comes to fic, that’s what it’s about for me.  Would it be amazing to get a story read and liked a million times?  Sure.  Does that part matter?  Nope.

I write because I can’t not write.  I write in the fandoms I choose not because they will garner accolades and popular status, but because I love the source material too much not to write about it.  When I’m trying to publish an original work, THEN I’ll torture myself worrying about whether or not my writing is reaching enough of an audience.  For now, I am happy with the 2 or 3 loyal people who leave me such wonderful comments and invest so much effort in appreciating what I could not help but create.

Yuletide 2016 is drawing to a close and, as always, I am so glad to have been part of it.  Trolls and flames and drama aside, at its heart this is an exchange of love and kindness.  It’s thousands of people working together to create stories that weren’t there before — in order to give them all away to readers who might really need a special gift come Dec 25th.  It’s all of us of the obscure fandom world getting to open our minds and our readership just a little bit wider, to spread our joy to each other and relish in being the only 4 fans in the world of Whatever-It-Is.

Collectively gift-giving art?  Selflessly and anonymously?  And celebrating our tiny fandoms which have won our loyalty and our love forever?

Hell yeah.

“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What we can be, we must be.” — Abraham Maslow

“If I have been of service, if I have glimpsed more of the nature and essence of ultimate good, if I am inspired to reach wider horizons of thought and action, if I am at peace with myself, it has been a good day.” — Alex Noble

It has been a good Yuletide.  And it’s not even over yet!

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2016 Writing Year in Review

Halloween means many different things to different people, from awesome candy party night to elaborate costume-and-decorations time, to serious religious holiday, to day-before-discount-bulk-candy joy.  Halloween has two very different meanings to me — and one of them is the celebration of the end of my writing year.

Which means it is time to see how I did!

Somewhere between 2010 and 2012, I made the decision to commit myself to writing more significantly, both in terms of quantity and quality.  Up until then, I had been happy with the occasional bout of inspiration or the odd oneshot here and there.  But no longer.  Party born out of a push to complete the outstanding works which had been left half-done, and partly because finally I was mentally and emotionally healthy enough to want to create, I vowed to set a standard and hold myself to it.  I recognized then that I can’t change whether or not I have writing “talent,” but I could sure as hell instill discipline and hard work in myself wherever inspiration or innate ability left off.

I’ve written before about my tracking spreadsheets and these were very much born in that time.  By the close of 2012, I was pushing myself to write most every day and I was finishing the projects I began no matter what.  But I also learned something about my habits — I don’t write a whole lot in November and December.

There’s lots of reasons for that 2-month downtime.  It’s a busy season for many people and I am no exception.  Between sometimes two different rounds of travel halfway across the country, holiday gatherings, gift-buying, and bracing for winter, I add onto that sometimes multiple gigs and/or concerts every week from about mid-November until January.  It’s a very hectic time to be a musician, believe me.  And it cuts into the free time I have, as well as my emotional energy.  Writing can be a form of stress-relief, but it brings its own stresses with it, too.  Performing is AWESOME, but it is also very, very stressful.  And these things do not mix necessarily well.  And that’s before there’s any hint of the changes that happen in a person’s psyche when the days get dark and short and you have to wear 18 layers to go outside.

I learned pretty quickly that I could not depend on myself to be able to write a long or substantial work in November and December, and that pushing myself to do so tore the fabric of my well-being.  I could still plot for future works, and I could write a lot of oneshots or short stories, and I could circle back on abandoned projects and give them a last push, but I couldn’t necessarily work through something big and new and difficult.  Which made trying to track progress really frustrating when the last 2 months of the year were something of a wash.

So I adjusted my inner calendar for the purpose of writing.

Now my writing year begins on November 1st and ends the following October.  November and December have become my fallow, planning months rather than a rush to get done before New Year’s Day.  I spend them cleaning up from the previous year to some extent, but mostly clearing the way for what is to come.  Over the course of a year I tend to come up with a lot of ideas for stories; November and December are when I actually sit down and sort them out.  Is this a novel or a oneshot?  If it’s a oneshot, can I get it done right now?  I also tend to get some of my best ideas in about mid-November which then spend December simmering before I dive into them with abandon at the start of January.  I might not write at all for these two months or I might write two short stories a w eek.  But whatever I do or don’t do, it’s the time I give myself to rest before the next push.

And since I have closed the book on my 2016 writing, it’s time to see how I did.

From November 1st 2015 through October 31st 2016, I wrote the following:

  • 4 novels (40,000 words or more)
  • 6 novellas (17,500-40,000 words)
  • 1 novellette (7,500-17,500 words)
  • 7 short stories (fewer than 7,500 words)
  • 2 character background projects for gaming
  • 17 blog posts on this site

…and other random assorted journaling/chronicling, including for gaming and my own personal diary/journal

Not too bad, actually!  I don’t count the blog posts or the random assorted stuff towards wordcounts and my official totals because they don’t involve the same level of creativity — they’re mostly just typing.  Maybe that will change if this blog becomes more robust with time, but for now, we’ll stick with what we’ve got.  Here is the more detailed breakdown by wordcount:

2016-writingAs years go, this one is my second-most productive.  To date, my biggest single year of writing remains 2014 when I maxed out at 517,373 words.  That percentage of Overall Total above proves that 20% of all the creative writing I have ever completed since 2004 was done in 2016.

Note that I don’t count works that I started and abandoned.  They have to be done to count.  This is as much me being persnickety about data as it is a motivating factor.  If I don’t finish, my numbers won’t be as good!

Here, then, is my total writing since 2004:

all-time-writingNow, that number also includes a short story I wrote for Yuletide on Tuesday, because 2017 is already underway.  But the ~6,300 oneshot doesn’t really change much at this point.

Worth noting in the 2016 data is that there are 4 fully original works included.  Three of them are short stories.  One is a novel…that I might try to publish.  That was my last writing project of the year, written in September and October, which tends to be my pair of most-productive months.  I’m going to let it rest for a while before I go back and edit it to pieces, and then we’ll see what all my beta groups say about it.  If it passes muster, well, there might be posts about the joys, ahem ahem, of querying.

But that’s for later.

For right now, I think I’ve earned a small rest for a year well done.

I think I’ll spend it writing another story.

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Climbing (and writing) and fear of falling

Yeah, it’s been a while.  Sorry.  There was some combination of a horrible 2-week cold that would not die and a lot of other things happening.  For example, tomorrow I’m singing in the TCWC Singathon to raise money for the choir and also to have fun with my sisters in song.  Check it out!

But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today.

Today I want to talk about climbing.  And writing, too.  But we’ll start with climbing.

Several years ago, a friend and I took up indoor wall/rock climbing at a place called Vertical Endeavors in Minneapolis.  It’s big facility where you can strap on a harness and test your mettle against some pretty impressive walls.  Like this one:

How we got into the climbing itself was kind of an accident.  When the Minneapolis location opened, the pair of us went to check it out and, in spite of the fact that it was very, very crowded and we were oh-so-terrible at it, we thought it might make for a good physical activity — and we very much wanted and needed some kind of exercise on a regular basis.  It took us a few weeks to get a system worked out (parking wasn’t terrible right away but it quickly became so, the distance from home to VE was inconvenient and meant dealing with rush-hour traffic, etc.) but soon enough we were making our way up walls a couple of times a week.

Of course, life got busy and we sorta forgot about climbing for a while, going only a few times a year not long ago.  But then Vertical Endeavors very helpfully opened a new location much closer to home for both of us and now we’re back to hauling ourselves into the air at least twice a week.

Climbing is a really interesting sport.  It’s deeply, profoundly competitive, but that competition is internal for the most part; I have a unique ability to compete with ANYTHING and ANYONE, ANYTIME, but that’s mostly just me.  In general, it’s not about being better than other climbers in the gym because there will ALWAYS be better climbers in the gym who were raised in a harness and can scale a glass wall without a safety line.  It’s not about being better than your climbing partner (unless you’re me, and then I don’t go for “better” so much as “at least as good as” anyway).

It’s about pushing yourself, your body, and your brain.  To climb familiar walls faster and more smoothly and with greater skill.  To climb more difficult routes and not to give up until reaching the top even if it makes your fingers bleed.  To make the advanced move that defines a difficult route rather than just throwing yourself at the wall and flailing your way along.

The great thing about climbing is that it isn’t purely physical — more on that part of it below — it is an equally mental exercise.  It’s playing Tetris with your body, figuring out how to get your limbs into position to reach the next hold, or how to align your balance to make the best use of it while you hang off a narrow grip.  It’s problem-solving at speed, and what you might lack in strength or experience you can make up for in creativity and determination and a certain willingness to bruise the hell out of your knees.

Next time I have a really good bruise, I’ll show you what I mean.  My knees are permanent shades of green now.

The physical side of it is not to be forgotten, however.  Climbing is easier than you think it should be when you’re doing it correctly — as in, when you really use your legs to carry your weight instead of trying to haul yourself along using arms alone.  But as soon as you figure out how to do that, then you start climbing harder routes and you find out that, no, you really do sometimes have to hang 50% of your weight off one hand, and then off only a few fingertips.  Or else you find that you have to be able to haul yourself to a standing position when your butt is hanging lower than your feet.  And you do it with your toes perched on something no larger than a ping-pong ball and your hands clinging to grips that barely deserve the name.

It’s a perfect sport for me, really.  On the one hand, it does get me the physical exercise I otherwise lack; I am not a runner, biker, or go-to-the-gym-er.  I need to be exercising, like everybody should, but I need it to be a challenge.  I need it to be intriguing.  And, frankly, I need it not to be aerobic or my breathing will shut down.  This is all the precision of swimming (which I also love but I hate chlorine), the strength-training of weights (boring), and with a whole element of mental and psychological toughness about it.

Because the other thing of note is that I am, unequivocally, afraid of heights.

No, seriously.  I am.

It’s weird, right?  That my sport of choice would involve hauling myself up 60-70 feet in the air?  That I would do it, willingly, when I have an intimate awareness of how high up I am, how exposed, and how likely I am to fall?  Yeah, it’s weird.

But that’s the third facet of it that I really, really like.

Being afraid of something is not good enough reason for me not to do it.  In fact, I’m the sort of person who will try something precisely BECAUSE it is scary (at least once).  And the thing about climbing is that there is more triumph in it for me when I have to master not just the route and my body, and not just the problem-solving, but I have to do it all with the spicy cold of fear running through my veins.  A difficult move that might result in a fall is far more difficult because of the terror of falling.  And yet I make the moves.  And yet I keep climbing higher and higher.  Even if I need to stop and hang on the wall for a minute to catch my breath or shove that distracting fear in a small box where I can ignore it, I don’t give up.

I’m not just strengthening my muscles; I’m strengthening my resolve.  I’m strengthening my endurance against the screaming inside my own head.  So the next time my ears ring with panic and my brain gets lost in a flood of cold fear, I’ll have practice beating it down and thinking through it, in spite of it, and making progress regardless.

Climbing requires you to be willing to take a risk, to make a move and maybe fall.  And it’s scary as hell, it really is.  But every time I make that move successfully, every time I get to the top of a difficult wall, shaking and elated, it pays off and it pays forward.  The next wall won’t be so scary.  The next route won’t be so intimidating.  The next real-world panic won’t have so much power over me.

Which is where writing comes in.

Writing and climbing have a lot in common in terms of how I approach and think about them.  Both are ultimately rewarding on multiple levels, and both trigger my inner desire to be better, faster, smarter.  Both could also make me want to compete against others, but that would be equally worthless for either.

Writing may not take as much of a physical toll as climbing, but the lessons of thinking it through, checking my balance, looking for alternative ways to solve the problem, taking chances — they all hold for writing, too.  Nobody wants to read a book that is the written equivalent of a ladder.  They want to read the book that twists them back and forth, that flips the weight of expectations and whose stakes are always high.  And that’s the kind of book I want to write, too.

There’s also an aspect of discipline and overcoming fear.  To get to the end of the book, I have to keep going no matter how hard or scary it gets.  I could stop in the middle and give up, but it just means I’ll have to start all over again, this time weighted by the knowledge of my own surrender.  I can stop trying the complicated stuff and go work on something easy, but the payoff won’t be the same.  When climbing, sometimes I have to brace myself mentally and physically and take a huge risk on every single move from start to stop.  Sometimes I have to grit my teeth and twist myself into a painful knot to keep moving forward.  Why should writing be any different?

And reaching the top, looking back at that path I have forged with legs shaking and hands cramped and knees bruised AGAIN DAMMIT, the victory on the wall is just as sweet as it is on the last page of a manuscript.

And, with every climb, even if I fail, I get stronger and smarter for the next one.  Muscles get BIG when you work them and my writing chops are no different.  In related news, I’m going to need some new shirts before I Hulk out of the current sleeves.  Which is a good problem to have, kinda-sorta, need to buy clothes notwithstanding.

Right now I’m working towards the climax of a novel I think I will actually put out to query at some point next year.  A lot can happen between now and then, but I feel like this one is worth trying.  And every time I shy away from that, or get so worried about “is it publishable?” I stop focusing on “what scene comes next and what’s in it?” I turn back to the mentality that gets me up the wall of a tough route.

One move at a time.

Just make this move, just reach that next hold.  Just push and pull and gain a few inches.  Just a few.

Then breathe and sort out the next one.

There is nothing behind that matters.  That’s all been handled.

What is ahead matters, but there’s no getting to the end without forgetting about it long enough to take each step on the way one at a time.

It’s hard, yes.  It should be hard.  It’s worth it because it’s hard.

It will be worth everything when it is done.

One move.

One paragraph.

Trust and take the leap.

And you know what?  I’ll make it.  One way or another.

So I’m going to go do that.  Write AND climb, actually.  In that order.  And between the two of them, I’ll banish some fears of falling and I’ll probably get some new bruises and I’ll have a hell of a lot of fun overcoming every obstacle in my way.

See you at the top!

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Current Writing Maxim: BEAR

Scene: A wild hillside battle.  Forces of opposing colors and ideologies clash under the burning sun in a riot of tiny victories and failures.  One side begins to falter, its defenders giving way beneath the strength of their enemies.

And their leader bellows over the sound, the battle cry of their people:  “I REALLY HATE ASPARAGUS!”

The army responds, swelling with pride and fierce loyalty to their united hatred of an evil green vegetable.  On the other side, courage dwindles.

The opposing leader responds:  “FOR THE BUS DRIVERS!”

The hordes of bus drivers and bus-driver-adjacent warriors respond with their own passion reignited.

And the two sides meet once more to commence their battle.

Okay.  Yeah, silly.  But whether you’re engaged in the strangest of strange confrontations or just trying to defeat yourself, it helps to have something to hold onto, some phrase or reminder or statement of a goal.  If you know what you’re aiming for, be it victory for the Horde or freedom from King Edward’s rule of wearing pants, it helps you get there.  Right?

Well, it does for me.

About every 18 months, I create for myself a little maxim, a set idea that will guide my writing until I change it again.  It’s not a rule and it isn’t fandom- or lack-thereof-specific, but more broadly it serves as a reminder of that which I strive to achieve in all writing, from a oneshot to a publishable novel.  I stick it right in front of my monitor and look at it every day.

My current maxim is the Rule of BEAR.

Be Reckless:  Don’t tell the ‘safe’ story.  Tell the story that needs telling.  Take the chances.  Make mistakes and fix them on the way down.  Challenge the rules at the root of the world.  Question all assumptions.  Don’t hold back.

Empty the Well:  Don’t settle for ‘good enough.’  If it needs more, give it more.  Wring the story and the characters dry.  Seek out the meaning, the absolutes, the sharpest edges.  Rip out a lung if necessary.  Leave nothing on the table.  Leave nothing unrealized.  Give until it hurts, then give until it bleeds, then give until it runs dry.  Then give again.

Art Harder:  (There is an optional “motherf*cker” at the end of this line, per Chuck Wendig’s awesomeness.)  Craft every line like it is a safety harness dangling you over the Grand Canyon.  Write every day like the bank account will empty without words to fill it up.  Feeling uninspired, uninterested, frustrated?  Tough.  Create or die.  Bulldoze through blocks like a toddler mowing down a sandcastle.

Regret Nothing:  Let the failure of the previous day die with the sunset.  If it sucks, fix it.  If it was hard to do, relish in it.  If it felt strange, celebrate it.  Step forward and write.  If it’s the wrong story, it will be a lesson in wrongness for next time.  Apologize for nothing, not even the mistakes, because they still lend blood and wisdom to the whole.

For myself, I need a battle cry like this.  It’s too easy for my self-doubt to crawl in and whisper that I should tell the story that everyone else tells, with the language and the twists that are ‘normal.’  It’s too easy for me to lose days dithering about whether X or Y decision was a mistake, or whether I should just give up and not challenge it to be better than it is.  It’s too easy for me half-ass a story.

Stories, shockingly, need a full ass to sit well.

Thus, this maxim.  The last set was kinda similar and it had the “Be Reckless” in it, and I was glad of that because it was me giving myself permission to take risks.  Now I’m giving myself permission to push harder than ever, to drive forward with all the force of will I can summon on a daily basis.  I’m giving myself permission to experiment, to dry myself out, and to forge on without doubt.

We’ll see how it works out.

Incidentally, a very useful post on something quite similar was written by the ever-awesome Chuck Wending HERE.

And, in honor of that, a friend of mine made this:

Art Harder pic

You heard the man.  Get to work.

Lastly, another author friend of mine, the amazing Eric Zawadzki, wrote this post a long time ago whose ending was all about hunting down the muse and hanging her head on the wall — on not waiting for inspiration but instead creating it.  It motivated me when I read it and helped me find a lot of agency in myself I didn’t know I possessed.

Well, no offense to Eric — he IS right, by the way — but I’m not equipping myself for muse-hunting anymore.

I’m loaded for BEAR.

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