Monday, November 3, 2008

Boom De Yada, Boom De Yada

Tomorrow is Election Day, and also the close of the most intense, twisty, weird, entertaining and dreadful presidential campaigns... possibly ever. People are saying we're on the verge of a turning point in our history. Maybe we are, or maybe it's all hyperbole. But no matter what happens, remember this...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Not Schizophrenia At All

I've spent the past few days alternately working on job hunting, and writing. I ended up writing three completely distinct opening chapters for three completely distinct novels. The word "schizophrenic" seems to be one that comes up a bit when I mention this. But as I mentioned in my last post, I am totally not schizophrenic.

Totally not. Not even a little.


Somehow, all three of these chapters ended up smack dab in the fantasy genre, more or less. Clearly I've been immersed in nerd culture for far too long. Or just the right amount of time, depending on your perspective.

I've got plenty of short story ideas that are perfectly Mainstream and Literary and have nothing to do with the fantasy genre, but somehow all my more novelistic ideas tend to be either fantasy, sci-fi, or a strange mix of the two. (Okay, not really so strange: it stopped being strange when Star Wars did it. But still, Star Wars never had elves, and it didn't have real honest to goodness dragons.) This may say something deep and insightful about my personality, or it may just be how my mental processes happen to be going at the time.

Just so long as I don't become one of those sf/f writers who uses the genre to disguise the fact that they had shitty plots and no real characters at all...

Anyway. Back to job-hunting.


Not so long ago, I was teaching a DeCal class at UC Berkeley on comics. (DeCal classes are student-run classes, one of the many unique features of UC Berkeley. Link!) It was the first lecture of the semester, which is always the most awkward because no one knows you and you don't know them, and half the people in there are ambivalent about showing up anyway and will probably drop the class by next session.

I gave a very rambly lecture on the history of comics. Somewhere in there I mixed up my topics; silver ages and bronze ages tend to twist your tongue when you aren't sleeping much. (Fact: UC college students never sleep much.) I looked across the classroom at confused faces.

"Sorry for the schizophrenic lecture," I said, or something about that. Then I ad-libbed a Humorous Joke to Defuse the Situation. "It's because I'm ... well ... schizophrenic," I deadpanned.

Silence. Students gave confused glances at each other while I blithely leaped to the next topic. I didn't even realize the significance of the confused glances until someone asked me after class: "Are you really schizophrenic?"

"No!" I replied, astonished.

"Because you said you were, and everyone thought you were serious..."

So let me just clarify: I am not schizophrenic. Schizophrenia, according to the infallible Wikipedia, is "a mental disorder characterized by abnormalities in the perception or expression of reality" which "most commonly manifests as auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions, or disorganized speech and thinking in the context of significant social or occupational dysfunction." While I'm sure that fits most people who might read blogs like this one (har, har), I've never experienced an auditory hallucination (that's like visual hallucination, but with your ears), my paranoid and bizarre delusions are confined to the imaginary people who live inside my head, and I prefer to think of my speech and thinking as not so much "disorganized" as "creatively reorganized".

I ... er, just thought I'd mention.

Was I supposed to be doing something? I can't remember. Uh-oh.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I Keep Wanting To Call It "The Axe"

I just finished reading Donald Westlake's The Ax, one of my many acquisitions from Berkeley's mah-vel-ous used book stores. The book's the kind of piece of work people describe as "hard-hitting"; it's about a guy who gets downsized right out the door from his company, can't get a new job, and finally finds his dream job after getting increasingly desparate over a couple years. The problem is that someone else already has his dream job. Our narrator decides that the solution is to kill that someone else - but first, he's got to kill the other people on the market for a job who have a better chance of getting his dream job than him.

It's a good book, very tightly plotted - in non-buzzword lingo, the story gets right to the point - and it really is difficult to stop reading once you've started. Unless you've got a repulsion for rooting for an effective serial killer. I did wonder why, on the Character side of things, would someone like this think to resort to killing. The fact that he kills is reasonable (as much as it can be) within the story's context, but it's not super clear what gave him that idea in the first place. It's not like crazy murderous ideas don't happen to Joe Average Ordinary Person, but we tend to bend under the iron hand of Social Tradition and put those naughty thoughts right out of our minds. Then again, worrying about this is kind of missing the point. The book's clearly in the realm of social satire, in all its bitter pointedness. The ending is rather surprising in that he neither gets caught nor 'redeemed' in the way these tales usually go. And being surprising is always a plus.

I've got a question, though: [SPOILER ALERT!] Would someone like this really THINK to resort to killing - and do it so well?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Square Peg, Meet Round Hole

I hate academic writing. I loathe it. I'm in love with the colloquial. I like swearing for effect. That's a good way to get university teachers to hate you. Don't get me wrong - I love academic theory, and I'm a huge nerd. I just hate the writing. Why, oh why, must good theory be tainted by practices like using twenty billion words where one would suffice?

Of course, I also hate academic writing because I'm not very good at it. When I'm forced to do it enough, I find myself developing new and interesting writing problems to overcome. For example, a strong inclination towards the practice of utilizing an egregious number of unintelligibly lengthy phrases to - oh dear, there I go again. I meant to say, I find myself using too many words to explain things. Hell, I've done that on this very blog. I'm probably doing it now!

I just wrote two 30-page papers on a couple subjects I find fascinating: a senior thesis on nontraditional stories in contemporary graphic novels ('comics', if you will), and how queer sexuality is dealt with in fantasy fiction. I keep looking them over and thinking about how much more I'd like them if I'd written them as blog posts. True, there's no way I would've spent hours, days, weeks on research on a blog post, but still...

On a side note, I've discovered the Blogger saves all your drafts. All of them. Ever. Which means that I officially love Blogger, because I'm constantly doing about 500 things at once, and often can't just sit down and write a journal post all in one go. Problem solved! Maybe.

Now Anticipating Co-Writers' Block

My sister text-messaged me a couple weeks ago with a message that said, basically, that "We need to get together sometime and right a book" about our childhood. (She meant "write", in case I needed to point that out.) This isn't a new idea; in fact, my brothers and sisters and I have been telling each other that for years now. Looking at the text message, I got the distinct feeling that the time, as they say, had come.

Pretentious? Presumptious? Everyone's had a childhood, right? Why is ours so book-worthy? Allow me to present a short version of the case, in bullet point form:

  • There are nine children in my family. (I'm the oldest.)
  • My father and mother were religious fundamentalists (well, are, though my mother's lightened up since then - I'm betting the bitter pill of getting an outside-of-religious-law divorce helped) who decided the best solution to the Dangers of the Heathen World was to ensure that we had as little contact as possible with it.
  • I was twelve before I met another human being close to my age. Before this, the number of children we'd previously met was four, not counting a couple cousins, who we saw about once a year.
  • Until I was twelve, none of us had a life outside our home. We were homeschooled, knew no outsiders, and weren't allowed into the front yard. (No fences to shield us from neighborly eyes.)
  • My father developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder over the course of the years, making our strange situation even stranger. We led a strange, ritualistic life within the four walls of our home - not counting the years we were homeless. One juicy detail: In the last years, our house itself was wired with cameras!
  • Everything, of course, went dramatically to shit, in the kind of story that sounds like you'd made it up If It Hadn't Really Happened. (Adding drama: the fact that most of this story takes place smack dab in the middle of Orange County, for an added dose of "It Could Happen Here"!)
  • More, uglier details that are a little too unpleasant for this particular blog post, but very dramatic nonetheless.
  • And, of course, there's the dramatic story of how we were introduced to The Outside World, and thereafter incorporated ourselves into it.
I've graduated from Berkeley this very week, and I'll be living down in Orange County again after two years, where the rest of my family still lives. Perfect timing. And, as for writing a book... hey, I'm already writing a book! I've taken writing workshops, I can edit, my style is marginally passable (read: no longer makes readers want to claw their eyes out).

I won't be writing it alone, though, even if I can form the skeleton of the book. The three oldest of our family were the most affected by it, so we'll write the majority of the book. And the rest of the family might contribute. (Not all of them are old enough to even remember the crazy years; I'm 23, and we're all two years apart - do the math.) We'll see how that goes!

An interesting thought: Since our names all begin with J, that could make an interesting "by" line: "J. Jesson, J. Jesson, and J. Jesson, with contributions by J. Jesson and J. Jesson. Special thanks to: J. Jesson, J. Jesson, J. Jesson, and J. Jesson." Of course, my mother's initials are C. Murphy, which screws the whole thing up, but what can ya do?

My current thorny questions number two:

1. Shall we use our real names? Or pseudonyms? (I plan to use my real name, but I'm not sure about everyone else involved.) If real names, then do we change the names of our brothers and sisters, particularly the ones not writing this or old enough to understand? (Using middle names would screw up the whole "J" theme.) What about - and here's a thorny question - our semi-estranged father?

and 2. What do we call the book?

Perhaps I should read other memoirs - I'm sure others of this kind exist - and see how they handle this...

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Why Don't Wands Break Down?

From the Turkey City Lexicon (an entertaining dictionary of writing terms which I've run into several times in the past, most recently via David Isaak's blog):
  • AM/FM
    Engineer's term distinguishing the inevitable clunky real-world faultiness of "Actual Machines" from the power-fantasy techno-dreams of "Fucking Magic.
I'm pretty sure this bit of the lexicon refers to the habit of certain sci-fi books to feature Futuristic Technology that never fucks up, always acts perfectly. In essence, it's Magic.

But hey, why should Fucking Magic always work so perfectly, anyway? In fiction I've read, guns jam. Cars break down. Pipes get clogged, tires go flat, doors creak, metal rusts. But I can't remember the last time I read about a magic item suffering the effects of wear and tear. This is especially noticeable in Aar Pee Gees (role-playing games) that bother to implement the effects of slamming a sword into giant rats and creepy fucking monsters but work perfectly if you're using that sword to zap something with frost magic. Even if it's completely broken (unusable, in game terms). Magic mechanics are usually limited to 'mana' or 'magicka' bars; in other words, treating magic power like batteries. (Or, as in D&D, you get a limited number of 'spell slots'.)

Outside of the RPG world, in fiction, these limitations are usually ignored. Even the books based on D&D rarely if ever pay attention to 'spells per day'. (I admit I've not read many of these books, as they're often... well, terrible.)

In the world of books, the last time I remember seeing magic breakdown appear was the second Harry Potter book, where a character breaks his wand, and it spends the rest of the book making spells rebound, blowing bubbles and making someone barf slugs for a couple hours. But this wasn't wear and tear, note, it was the result of being snapped in half. I can't think of an instance where a wand stopped working because of, say, a faulty magic spark plug.

Now, sure, it would be a little silly if Sauron's One Ring ran out of battery power if worn too long, but what about the many, many modern fictive magic worlds that are less Epic and Mythic and more down-to-earth? Something to dump in the idea pool, at least...

Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Minor Euphoria

I just rewrote the first scene of the novel manuscript I’ve been working on for three and a half years now, not counting the last year and a half in which I barely touched it. (Stopped at page 130.) I’ve rewritten this scene a billion times, and never liked it. I’ve kept coming back to it, over and over, and it was always painful.

This time, though, it was a breeze. I mean, it just flew onto the page, and I’m completely happy with it. ‘Course, I may reread it tomorrow and hate it, but for now, I’m a little euphoric.

The difference, I think, is that I now “know” the character, after having the whole thing in the back of my mind for that break. Her character makes more sense to me. I have a basic idea of her history. To be honest that’s what I never bothered to do with her, through the two years I workshopped the manuscript – give her a life. She was based off of a strong idea I had of her in a moment of time, over halfway through the novel’s story. I figured rewinding her wouldn’t be a problem. It was.

How much does one need to know about their characters? Some people have recommended that you write little biographies, fill out forms with details. But those feel artificial and when I try them, they tend to come off as unreal. Or stuff that really doesn’t matter to the character. But then, knowing some of the most mundane details about a fictional (or real) person’s life can be terribly illuminating. So what do you need to know?

Some authors, I'm told, just stick a character into a scene and they click, click, click. They don’t know where these characters come from and don’t care. What’s up with that? What’s going on here?

An addendum: It occurs to me that through all the times I painfully rewrote this scene, I cared more about the situation than the character. Until now, when I found a lot of it was extraneous – the scene is now under 6 pages. (Some version pushed 20.) Was I just making her jump through hoops? Was that the problem?

Friday, January 25, 2008

New Characters

The first scene you write with a new character (or, heaven forbid, new characters) is probably going to be shit. I never seem to realize that.