Monthly Archives: December 2008

The Electronic Book Revolution: A Personal View

This year my offspring gave me a Nintendo DS for Christmas with the little mini Zelda adventure on it.  I admit I’m having fun.  I also like the size of the contraption and the little stylus to control the action by touching the screen.  I’m enjoying it so much that last night I had an amazing thought: if I like this little gizmo so much how would it be to read a book on one?  Or something similar as I have no idea what a Kindle or Sony Reader looks like or any other electronic book reader.

Now if you knew me and mine you would know incredibly revolutionary this thought is.  I may have been one of the first people on the planet to own a computer, but I only succumbed to either a laptop or a cell phone this last couple of years, and only this morning did I become the proud owner of an iPod for the first time in my life.  It was an anniversary gift.

I love books.  I love the weight, the texture, the feel, the scent of them.  I love the way that the black ink print looks on the creamy or yellowing pages.  I love paper.  I love the musty used bookstore smell of old paperbacks.  I love the artwork on the cover and I love to handle books and I love the look of a wall full of bookshelves full of books.

Replacing all that with a little handheld electronic device?  Can I enjoy this?  Will it satisfy my aesthetic sensibilities and my sensual pleasure in reading?  More importantly how tangible is it?  If I were to publish my novel would I feel like I have a book out if it was just puffs of ethereal pixels that I can’t even see?

When I consider all these things, my Luddite self battling with my geek self, I remember that the vast majority of my authorial outpourings have always been published electronically and these days I do the majority of my reading online.  Where is the difference?  Furthermore how many trees could I save and how much easier to move without fifty cartons of books to hump around?  Could I just reserve for my book collection art books and reference?  The old beautifully bound book of poetry?  Perhaps paper books become works of art in of themselves and the rest can fit on my electronic reader.

Of course the wheels of change can move quickly, or it might be a while before I take the plunge, but the thought is there and the journey begun.

A Cause Without a Rebel

I don’t find the myth of the starving artist to be alluring. I don’t relish the idea of the writer in the garret, scotch bottle at his right, cigarette smoldering in the overflowing ashtray. I’m not drawn to self-destructive he-men like Jackson Pollock splattering his work over giant floor-sized canvases while his wife sacrifices her art and happiness on the altar of his genius. I don’t need to die young, wrapped bone and sinew in the chassis of my Porsche 550.

There are days when I actually consider that might be why I’m not a better artist.

Then I remember this guy, a printmaker of some skill, which was a friend of the family. My mother and her husband were both amazing artists in their fields but both suffered from anxiety disorder as well as other emotional scarring and trauma. This printmaker actually said “I wish I could have panic attacks so I could be a great artist”. Obviously he lacked the imagination required to move from ‘competent’ to ‘great’.

When I have my moments of angst over my lack of success as an artist I like to think about Raphael. He was hugely successful, very prolific, handsome, and amiable. What more could you ask for? Oh wait, he died at 37 years old. Ok, but that wasn’t too bad right? After all it was the Renaissance, more dangerous times and all.

Wait, hold on… I’m rummaging through my hard drive for more examples of happy productive artists (preferably ones that were slow starters because they were too busy just sort of wandering around aimlessly until their mid-thirties)…

Hmm… Rembrandt won’t do because though he started out happy and successful (in love with his wife Saskia) he ended up with tragedy and poverty.

Maybe painters aren’t the best source for the happy successful artists sans angst? I should turn to literature.

Ah! Henry Miller.

I’m sure he had his moments of angst but he lived a very long life, was successful during his lifetime, and screwed tons and tons of beautiful interesting broads. There you go. Oh and on the subject of long lives I did think of a painter: Picasso! So he was an asshole to all around him. I’m sure he was totally happy.

I, too, can be a happy successful artist. Of course if I’m not an asshole will that hinder me? Perhaps I should cultivate being more of a jerk?

Or maybe, just maybe, I should stop navel gazing and write something besides another blog post?

Oh, ok, I just have to share this will all three of you that read this: so last night I’m trying to go to sleep but the lovely lady has on her show because she’s not quite sleepy yet and I’m trying to ignore it, but you know I can’t ignore dialogue. I start to listen whether I want to or not. I’m not sure what show she was watching but I wish I had a photographic memory so I could share with you all (that’s you five over there) the deathless bad writing. I never ever heard anything so hackneyed in my life. Without seeing the actors or other distracting visual content I could just focus on the clichés. It was horrendous. I had to turn on my light and start reading Elmore Leonard before I made an ass of myself and told her just how crappy the show was. Would that have qualified me as an asshole artist? Did my restraint forever doom me to be just another wannabe?

Little Boy with a Wooden Sword

appetineAccording to Helen Ginger’s blog this morning “History Sells” and that’s good news for history genre writers everywhere. I’m not really addressing the financial possibility of that because for me writing is an art form, and as such if I put a dollar figure on the activity from the start I’m doomed to write dross. But knowing that other people out there love to immerse themselves in the past as much as I do is a consolation and a motivation – but why do they?

My last blog post addressed how people from a hundred years ago would view the passage of time differently and that’s just one of the numerous ways that our ancestors differ from us. I don’t believe there is any one thing in terms of the details that singles out why historical fiction appeals to people. Certainly it’s not the little things like time or clothes or what people ate or the weapons they used. Even though each history buff has a specific interest or period that draws their attention what makes a genre appealing to particular people is always something transcendent from the details. I believe there is something fundamentally different in historical fiction from all contemporary fiction and that is the presence of clearly defined roles and expectations. Whether or not we are talking about a heroine who breaks the rules the comfort lies in the rules itself.

Much as I think that overriding appeal of the fantasy genre is the ability to have very clearly defined good and evil, something unbelievable in contemporary stories, historical fiction allows men to be men and women to be women. Before everyone screams at me and throws cupcakes (or is that cream pie?) let me elucidate a little further.

As a man working in an office four days a week the idea of walking down Allen Street with a Colt .45 Peacemaker in my holster and a clear purpose in my mind, to arrest the bad guy or shoot him if necessary, is a form of freedom from restraint. In my historical world I can dust up a guy with my bare knuckles over a matter of honor and not be considered a macho asshole with too much testosterone. For a woman, though she might be inclined to grab up a saber on occasion, I believe it is often equally liberating to be free from worrying that if she appears beautifully dressed in satins and velvets, with her hair done up in a delicate net ornamented with pearls that she is not being frivolous or submitting to sexism. After all it is 1600 what else would she be wearing? I simplify, of course, but I think you get the point.

Historical fiction makes dipping into the mores and culture of past ages sexy and safe. I really wouldn’t want to be walking around in the French Revolution, particularly if I was a nobleman, nor would I want to be a woman dressed so tightly in a corset that I need smelling salts to revive me every time I had to breathe, but to have the freedom to imagine myself there through the writing or reading of historical fiction is a form of wondrous time travel that is, literally, timeless.

Returning to men and women – we can remake history in our own likeness when we are the authors. The heroine can pick up her skirts, trim them short with her dagger, and then take up saber to fight for her cause. We can make sure that the good guys really are good and that the cause was just. Or we can be gritty and endure the past and all its injustice and social inequality knowing that once we close the book we have returned to our own time, our own culture. How many women with two jobs, two kids, and a mortgage enjoy the adventures of a Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth, or an Ancient Egyptian Queen? How many men with a cubicle existence embrace the single-minded duty of Richard Sharpe as he leads his small doughty band of men in the war against Napoleon?

Life might be rough, or dirty, but it’s clear and uncomplicated compared to our daily lives – and we get to play with swords.

A Trip Back

Driving to Work

Driving to Work

When I write historical fiction one of the biggest imaginative hurdles I have to overcome is to truly understand the nature of time as my characters experienced it. If you ever watched one of PBS’s reality series where it takes modern volunteers and sticks them in the past as in Colonial House you might get what I mean. I came to this thought, this morning, because of the contemplation of my own day.

Yesterday some technical issues reared their head with the server I maintain. After a mid-length call to my tech guru last night I realized that I had basically graduated from the ‘grasshopper’ stage and he was setting me an assignment: do it yourself. So upon rising this morning the first thing on my modern multitasking mind was how to fit a lesson in MySQL into my already full schedule. I work four days a week at the ‘job’ and then three days a week I work from home managing and participating (both the same thing really) in my community web site, hosted on my own server (thus the need for lessons in MySQL management).

This being one of my three days in my home office I needed to cram all my writing in (blog, book, collaborative), continue to clean up after the holiday festivities, get my laundry done, and generally make myself useful around the flat since the other half of the equation works outside the home for all seven days of the week. The phone will ring, Twitter will chirp, instant messages will fly back and forth at Pan Historia, music will be played from a small plastic disc inserted into a tray in a machine capable of tasks that people didn’t even imagine they would ever need to do one hundred years ago.

This is when I began to marvel at the quality of the day of one of my ancestors as little as one hundred years ago. Imagine I was that ancestor and my tastes were exactly the same. I would have to do my morning chores, probably at the crack of sparrow’s fart because oil or candles or even electricity would have been a finite resource and I needed all the free daylight I could get. My chores would include bathing which would either require cracking ice, hauling water, or heating water on the stove, or all of the above. Personal hygiene alone would take a good chunk of time, perhaps an hour if I was fastidious or it was a long haul to the well? If I was the one doing the laundry (say I was a bachelor) that would take a substantial amount of time. There is the beating, scrubbing on the washboard, and hanging on the line. In the winter I guess my house would be full of my shirts and shorts vying for space by the stove? Dishes, like washing the face, would require much hauling of water and heating of water. I suppose I could peel some spuds while that water heated up.

Are there animals to be fed? How about cooking? I guess I might have one of those big cast iron ranges and it would need to be fed wood or coal – same with the stove to heat the house. That would involve chopping and stacking and fetching from the woodshed or at the very least a visit to the coal shed with the scuttle to be filled. I’m still working on the chores here. I haven’t even gone to my day job yet or, even more interesting to me, sat down at my desk to write where I would take paper, costly and thick, from the drawer, get out the quill pen, dip it in the ink, and then laboriously compose my thoughts by written word in longhand.

Now it’s time to go to the mill or the general store or wherever it is I work. I might walk or ride depending on the distance and my income level. If I walk it could easily be an hour or so from my home. If I ride I first have to take care of the horse in the morning: feed, water, clean out the stall. Then I have to saddle up and even my ride will take some time. There are no five minute car trips. With the exception of my peeling potatoes while the water heats up there is no ‘multi-tasking’ in this world. The day begins early and each moment is filled up with tasks from profound to laborious to simple. Only the wealthy had true leisure time because even making the simplest meal was work. It seems to me that time must have both gone slower for the me of a hundred years ago and at the same time have been so filled with labor of the hands that it went by as fast as a winter day turns back to night. Imagine going to visit your relatives for Christmas and taking a month to do it because after traveling for a week or whatever you certainly didn’t want to just turn around again?

In 2008 my head is filled with too many little things so that my thoughts are like mayflies – destined to dance around in swirling and confusing storms for a short time and die. A hundred years ago my thoughts would have been like oaks, born of acorn, slowly maturing, and then a great spreading tree of ideas, all branching and of the same wood.

Getting Ready to Fire Up the Press

Time to take a long and welcome stretch and then consider what the New Year will bring.

This year, for me, I anticipate many changes, but what goals might I set for myself in terms of writing?

As a collaborative writer I’m approaching something rather exciting at Pan Historia.  One of my collaborative ‘novels’ is coming to an end.  We are in the process of planning a conclusion and tying up all the loose ends.  Ideally it can then be read just like any other novel with a beginning, middle, and end.  I would like to also propose to my fellow writers at The Midnight People that we edit and then publish the work.  One of the really exciting developments of the computer and internet age is the greater freedom that writers have to get published.  Of course the Vanity Press has existed as long as the printing press, but nowadays self-publishing with all the trimmings of self-promotion and marketing is now a real possibility.  I anticipate a fairly small audience for our fantasy novel, but I think it would be a great thing to hold the real life paperback version of our collaborative work in our hands.  The sense of accomplishment alone would be worth it, even if we don’t entirely recoup the costs of the project.

In addition to a print version of the completed The Midnight People I hope to extend the publishing option to all of Pan Historia.  A number of years ago we put together a compilation book that we named the Pan Historia Birthday Book.  I had planned for a new one every year but sadly that was more work than I could manage, but I think it’s time for another. It sounds to me, reading what I have just wrote, that I really plan to enter the world of publishing, albeit in my small and quirky way.  Pan Press here I come!

Which leads me to my own solo literary effort: it’s time to get serious about my novel.  My New Year’s resolution will involve dusting off my research, and then writing at least a page a day.  If I can write a page of blog every day… well you get the picture.  I won’t wait a week to start, I’ll start today.  There is nothing like grabbing the moment and not letting good intentions get away.  I finally realized, in a blinding moment of revelation, what the block was to the novel and that was that I had character, no problem, but I hadn’t really decided what the damn plot was.  So I will work on a rough outline and try and hammer out the story arc.

Wish me luck.

Advice: Don’t Always Take the Advice of Experts

Wayne Thibaud

Wayne Thibaud

I read a lot of writing tips, and as you might have noticed by now I even write a few. My credentials might be slimmer than some of the other folks who tell you what to do and what not to do when it comes to writing, but I’ve been writing fiction for a long time and I have sat at the feet of some of the best. So here is my advice for what it is worth: do not always heed writing tips.

One of the most common tips for beginning writers is to trim out the fat, kill your darlings, and stick to the action. On the surface this is a great piece of advice. After all modern readers get bored quickly in our micro-blogging and text messaging age and beginning writers often make the mistake of including lots of dull and go nowhere description. But if you go back the basics and actually read the classics you will find that some of the most beautiful and inspiring passages of fiction are spent in consideration of a landscape, or describing the interior of a room, or even the rambling thoughts of the author suddenly intruding. Most of that wonderful description would be marked with red pencil and be left on the floor by conscientious modern editors getting to the action.

So if it’s going to be cut – why include it? First of all there are other ways to get published these days, but second of all just the act of writing it can be a learning experience. Third of all if you’re an artist you just might succeed in getting that description to be essential to the heart of your story and get it past the well meaning editors. We’re not all meant to be mean, clean and spare as Elmore Leonard.

Don’t add fillips of deathless prose description just for filler, and don’t get caught up in something so mundane that it serves zero purpose, but do remember that you’re painting a picture in your reader’s mind. There is an art to what to reveal and what to conceal. You might well leave out detailed descriptions your character’s appearance, but create a deep visual of their bedroom or workspace:

Scattered on Wyatt’s desk were discarded pistachio shells. Weaving in and out of a tangle of electronic wires were opened bills, read then jammed into available spaces to be ignored. In a green glass bowl of pebbles laid the thick silver band he usually wore.

This tells us more about Wyatt than any description of his commanding brown eyes, agile capable fingers, or manly chest would ever do. There is a purpose to the description – to show us a bit about who Wyatt is without resorting to language like: “Wyatt was a slob, and never threw away or filed his bills. He loved eating pistachio nuts. He always took his ring off when working because it was too tight.”

The best advice on writing is always from the best writers. If you want to know how to write, read and read from the best. Examine their novels, short stories, poetry. Take it apart to see what makes it tick. Ask your self questions as you read. Read it twice. The first time should always be for the sheer pleasure of it, but then read it again and tease it apart to see how that writer kept you enthralled and engrossed. How did they break the rules and get away with it? How did the flights of seemingly irrelevant description or musings on the meaning of life actually enliven the piece for you, or would you have used the red pencil there (not all great writers are infallible)? Writing tips are a place to get started, but don’t let them mold you into a boring pedestrian writer that has no voice of your own.

And you know what else? It’s ok if you write a few books before anyone ever wants to read them. Like any other art form else there is an apprenticeship to writing.

Where Do Ideas Come From?

Kandinsky PaintingPersonally it always seems to me that ideas just pop into my head from no where at all.  Seriously.  One minute your mind is blank or considering your shopping list for the day (shit that reminds me I was supposed to look up the ingredients for Duck ala Orange today before I head out and here am I, still in my PJ’s writing a frikkin’ blog again) and the next minute an idea has burst out of your skull like Athena girded for battle.  So clearly the ancients had it right and it is the job of the Muses to put that stuff in your head.  Or is it?

Human beings are sponges and artists and writers even bigger sponges.  We are constantly absorbing all the input that is rushing into our febrile brains; or we should be if we want to call ourselves artists.  Observation is one of the greatest tools of art.  We need to be looking around at the world around us all the time and taking it in, adapting it for our own creative impulses.  I am influenced by the news, movies, books, other people, nature, you name it… and all that stuff feeds into my brain, gets melted down, re-mixed, and spews back out in the form of words, ideas, and colors (when I’m painting).  I paint when the ideas are non-verbal.  I write when the ideas are stories.  It’s ok to be influenced by what you have read or watched, but it’s always good to take a long hard look at what you produce and ask yourself is it ‘influenced by’ or is it completely derivative?  With all this constant feedback coming in it’s sometimes hard to know when you’re being original.  Bearing in mind that you don’t want to be a copyist remember that all literature and all art (movie, manga, pottery, whatever) is an ongoing conversation between creators and viewers/users.  There is no single pristine piece of work that has never been touched by a previous idea.  Even the Lascaux cave paintings are working off previous ideas.

They say there are only seven plots, and if you flense it to the bone that’s probably about right so you can never be entirely original.  Don’t sweat it.  You still want to be careful though that you’re not just picking up something in its entirety and putting your name on it.  Even fan fiction can be entirely original and yet be playing off of someone else’s riff.  Find your voice, your own ideas, and pull it in.

So back to ideas: I often get an idea from another work of art or entertainment.  Often a movie will give me an idea for a character.  I like the movie, I like the character, but what I really want to do is to pull that character out and put him somewhere else and see what he will do.  And while the original movie I viewed might be my jumping off point by the time I have pulled in other source material it’s all looking a lot different.  It could be a book or a story I read in the newspaper, or even a memory of something I loved or was intrigued by twenty years ago.  Some ideas have a much longer gestation period than others.  I might buy a tube of paint, some particular hue I haven’t tried before, and it might sit unopened in my paint tray for a couple years before it becomes just the right color for the job at hand.  There is no rush to use up ideas.

Don’t treasure ideas too much either.  As I have pointed out they are unlikely to be entirely new and original to you.  Ideas are like colds.  They like to be spread about to bring joy to each new carrier.  Someone might easily have the same idea or a similar one to you and they didn’t have to even poach it from you in the first place.  One idea is too trite and overused?  Find another one.  They are all around you.  In fact they’re literally littering up the place if you just open up your senses and take in all the data.