Saturday, May 6, 2017

Hidden Messages

I can’t help it.  Inside every man there’s locked a puerile little boy.  The other day I was on the website of the Catholic University of America.  As everyone knows, Catholics have some of the greatest hangups about sexuality in all of Christendom.  Like most universities, however, CUA has to appeal to both genders to make ends meet.

In any case, I was looking over the undergraduate programs for a friend and the head picture struck me as impossibly funny.  All the more so because it was totally unintentional.  Over the past few years institutions of higher education have been using plenty of photos of coeds to attract the guys.  That’s just the way it is.

In this photo, however, the two women have inscrutable smiles on their faces as one makes the universal “inches” sign with her fingers.  It doesn’t help that there’s a guy sitting right there, not looking their way.  On the blackboard behind, although blurry, is the word “tube.”  The drawing on the right could be mistaken for a circumcised tube that might be measured in inches.

I’m sure the innuendo was completely unintended.  This mise-en-scène, however, says it all.  What are the girls talking about?  What else could they possibly be talking about?  The juvenile mind takes over.

The photo reminds me of Chekov’s Gun.  The story goes that playwright Anton Chekov wrote, in several variations, that if you show a gun on the wall in scene one of a play it must go off by the end of scene two or three.  Expectations have been laid.  The viewer has been primed to expect this.

The lesson here for writers is to pay attention to what you’re saying.  Something that’s funny to others but that’s unintentional can cost you.  You don’t want to go off half-cocked (that’s a gun reference, in case you’re wondering).

Many writers write too quickly.  They don’t proofread or do so too fast.  Then the inevitable happens.  Two girls get together and snicker over it.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Self Criticism

The self-critical writer is an odd beast.  In fact, I sometimes wonder if I’m not working at cross-purposes with myself in trying to get published.  You see, despite all the “no”s I receive from editors, I am my own worst critic.  I put a lot of care into my stories—there’s nothing slap-dash there.  Yet when I watch movies I often groan at the state of the writing.  They’ve made it, and I haven’t.

The same is true when I read novels.  I’ve read many—most by major publishing houses with “bestseller” splashed all over the cover that left me with a shrug and a yawn.  They get multiple book contracts.  I get rejection slips.  (Or I would if they still sent slips.)  They don’t even tell me why.

I don’t really need rejection slips to critique my work.  I critique the hell out of it.  I go over stories time and again, like a rock tumbler, even after they were pretty good to begin with.  Such is a writer’s life.  I critique, but I don’t critique  nearly enough, obviously.

This is perhaps the burden of the artist.  The one who creates a work knows its flaws best.  I’ve done some woodworking in my time, and pieces that others complement show up in my eyes as a sum of their mistakes.  I know the irregular joins and corners not exactly square.  Nobody needs to tell me.

As an altar boy I once carried the crucifix into the chapel.  Misjudging the height of the door, I rammed Christ into the jamb.  The priest harshly whispered, “Don’t bang the crucifix!”  As if I hadn’t noticed.  As if I didn’t feel the sneering eyes of the entire altar party on me.  I was at the very head of the procession.  Everybody saw.

So it is with rejected pieces of writing.  I send in polished, thoughtful pieces.  Thoroughly critiqued ahead of time.  “Thank you, but no,” the editors say.  They forgot to mention I shouldn’t bang the crucifix as well.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Makes the Wold Go Round

It’s all about the money.  As any real writer knows, we write because we’re compelled to.  I suspect it’s only after someone tastes success that s/he gets cynical enough to write for money.  That doesn’t stop agents and publishers from trying, though.

My Medusa novel was under contract with a publisher.  This was about five years ago.  After dallying around for a couple of years, the publisher cancelled the contract because the editor who’d signed it up had left the press.  That’s hardly a legitimate reason; in fact, it defeats the purpose of a book contract all together.  I’ve not been able to find another publisher since.

Nearly every rejection letter says something along the lines of “It’s well written, but it’s not for us.”  They mean they don’t see enough dollar signs.  I’m not naive—I get it.  I would, however, appreciate just a little compensation for the hundreds and hundreds of hours I put into my writing.  Self-publishing is too much work on top of work.  There’s gotta be a small press out there that likes quirky, well-written, unpublishable novels.

I’m not greedy.  I do, however, have bills to pay.  Long ago I figured out that the only salable talent I possess is my writing.  Seems I might’ve been wrong about that.  At least according to the publishers that only want material that’ll bring in big bucks.

I have friends who work in publishing.  They tell me most houses don’t make their costs back on many books, but a few punch through and make enough to cover themselves and several siblings.  The benefit is that it gives authors a chance to be heard.  I’m old enough to realize I’ll never get wealthy from my writing, but it would be nice to get a token payment now and again.

The small publishers don’t like to take chances, although a book on the bestseller list these days is called Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.  Just don’t try to get published if you’re one of them.  Nobody’s interested unless they think you can make them a mint.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Times and Tides

Writers are creatures of habit.  My own writing routine is to get up crazy early before I have to be at work and write the day awake.  I've been doing it that way for years.  Decades, even.  Then the time change comes.

When you're young it's not such a big deal.  A few extra yawns at school on Monday and by Friday you're acclimated.  But time holds still for no one.  As an adult, it takes more time to adjust to changes in your schedule.  Suddenly what used to be 4 a.m. is now 5 a.m.  You have to get out of bed at what feels like 3:00.  The writer's schedule suffers.

Daylight Saving Time was a contingency invented by the Germans during the world wars.  In order to maximize the usable light, they changed their clocks from standard time so that early morning light (my favorite) wouldn't be wasted.  Better to have later at night light.  Obviously, they weren't writers.

So I get up in the morning, ready to write, but *yawn* I can't concentrate so early!  It'll take me more than a few days to bounce back.  We writers live on our own time anyway—perhaps there should be a special rule for writers, allowing them to keep their regular time?

Even our computers, though, change the time automatically.  It used to be that only the gods had such power.  Well, with Silicon Valley being what it is, maybe it's still the gods in charge of our clocks.

Where did I leave off that story?  Funny, I don't recall being so fuzzy-headed yesterday morning when I got up to write.  I have nothing against the Germans, of course.  They were only being practical.  Logical.  Now, with advances in technology, it would be logical to stop shuffling the time around.  If Daylight Saving Time is better, why not keep it all year round?

Don't mind me.  I'm just headed back to the kitchen for another cup of coffee.  And maybe then I'll be able to remember what I was writing about just twenty-three hours ago.  Or was it twenty-five hours ago?  Only the gods know.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Glass-Walled Cabin

My latest publication, “Glass-Walled Cabin” has appeared on The WiFiles.  As is my custom, I devote a post to the story to share with readers what went into the writing process.

The WiFiles publishes fiction with a paranormal bent.  That fits the horror genre particularly well since few people take sasquatch seriously.  To write a story like this, however, requires some first-hand experience.  At least in my case it does.

Many years ago I went to visit a forest ranger fire spotter in a lonely observation tower in the northwest United States.  Most people are aware that the western part of this country suffers from perpetual drought, making the mountains, especially in summer, a potential tinderbox.  The fire spotter had to live in this glass-walled cabin for four months at a stretch.  Short visits were okay, but long-term guests would be a distraction.

Climbing to the tower meant hiking to the top of one of the tallest peaks in the area.  And you also had to know the ranger.  The first thing that struck me was how incredibly alone this guy was.  He had to be okay in his own head.  You need to look out through the glass constantly.  If you can look out, others can look in.

Horror, for me, takes place in isolated locations.  I’m not the kind of guy who has lots of friends, but I know the necessity of reaching out when trouble strikes.  So the aging protagonist finds himself isolated in a fire tower.  Instead of preventing a fire he finds himself on the inside of a cage.

Are sasquatch real?  I don’t know.  Taking aside the pranks there seems to be some reasonable evidence.  While today’s eyewitnesses tell of seeing one, the miners in Ape Canyon in 1924 claimed to have been attacked by a whole tribe of them.  I took this story, modernized it, and brought one man alone to face the fear that others claim doesn’t exist.

Without having traveled to this region myself, however, I doubt I would’ve felt compelled to write such a story.  For me, horror begins with personal experience.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Problem with Backup

I remember the days when computer files were saved on disc.  Diskettes, actually.  All my stories were carefully backed up in duplicate.  I felt secure.

Technology progressed, as technology will.  The floppy disk gave way to higher capacity storage systems—I had a Jaz drive, once upon a time.  These cassettes, reminiscent of an 8-track, held an enormous amount of data.  But not enough.

Computers came with CD drives then, but you couldn't save onto a CD—like the early PDFs.  Then they made CD writers common hardware with your computer.  I began saving everything on CDs.  Large tubes of them fill a forgotten desk drawer.

Then came the terabyte drive.  Holding more storage capacity than a moon-launch computer, this little device, used weekly, safely holds my secrets.  Stories are secure at last.  My computer wants me to save them to the Cloud.  And pay for the privilege.

So I dutifully backup my hard disc onto the terabyte drive.  This morning old Terry died.  I think my files are still there, but what does one do when one's stories are in jeopardy?  I don't trust the Cloud.  Rain happens, my friends, and I don't want somebody else keeping my fiction.

Alas, it is time to seek out an expensive expert who will charge me to retrieve what is mine in the first place.  Puts a new spin on intellectual property, does it not?  These improvements are supposed to make life easier, but instead they mean storage spaces full of outdated media.

I think I'm going back to pen and paper.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Fiction Factor

I’ve often wondered if it’s accidental that fact and fiction share consonants.  Oh, the vowels are completely different, and fiction ends with that trickster consonant n, but don’t let that fool you.  Things aren’t always as clear cut as they say.

In some languages, I’ve been told, the meaning of a word lies in its root.  My friend Steve once told me that Hebrew words have “triliteral roots.”  That is, words based on the same three consonants, in that order, are closely related.  You can make a noun into a verb by taking the root and changing the vowels.  Maybe something similar is going on with fact and fiction.

Jorge Luis Borges, I have to confess, hasn’t appeared in my reading as much as he should.  Many of his story revolve around the indeterminacy of words.  They change, they shift, they mean something we didn’t mean for them to mean.  And he sometimes uses Hebrew as an example.

I don’t read Hebrew—English is difficult enough, thank you very much—but I wonder if Borges, and others, aren’t onto something here.  The language you think in determines what you write.

I once had a dream in French.  I’ve never studied French and I don’t speak it.  At the time of the dream I’d seldom heard it spoken.  In the dream I knew it was French and when I awoke the sounds were consonant with the little I knew of the language.  Maybe our hardware includes the Rosetta Stone.  All we have to do is tap into it.

I’ve often played with the idea of writing using nonsense words.  Dr. Seuss was a master at pulling that off plausibly.  Those who speak in tongues might have an advantage here.  Still, words don’t always mean what we think they do.  Those of us who write fiction know that words tame us, not the other way around.

So is it fiction or fact?  Can anybody really know?