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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Treating Setting as a Thing

It’s October and NaNoWriMo is barreling towards us at increasing speed. I am not at all sure that I will participate this year, though it seems to me that I need to – if only to focus my efforts.

In fact, one of the stories started as NaNoWriMo sits untouched because after some time it became clear that it was derivative without any good twists to make it truly a gem. It can remain in the dark until I can salvage it (from itself or for parts, as the case may be). I’d rather not publish than release subpar material.

To me, this is not a failure so much as a reason to try something else creatively. Perhaps I am being too hard on myself and the story ought to be told as a fantastic ridiculous little tale meant to amuse and nothing else.

I have produced less this year than I intended. I did publish The Mistress, and have been writing a collection of stories (Bloody Trail of Disenchantment). The plan is still to have it on sale for the holidays.

One of the stories seems to have escaped me. The moment I felt it coming on, I should have just started it. I took notes on the setting and a passage I wanted to see in the story (all setting, nothing plot-related). I lost the feel of the characters because I no longer understand the motivation of one or the reactions of the other.

And while I am saddened by the probable loss of what may have been a fantastic tale, I would like to advocate writing scenes where the object is nothing more than to preserve scenery.

Setting defines a place, but it also helps with mood and ambiance; and sometimes it becomes part of the story, as an additional character in the story (that is one strong and enduring place!).
What I am advocating is writing observations about places, lyrical and clinical alike, with or without characters (they are not what's important in this exercise). Keep these notes in a drawer – or a database, thumb drive or sticky notes. Preserve the scene like some omniscient CSI... 'cause setting is a thing.

Even if you are not dedicated to a story, a novel, or any one specific project, you are still writing.

More importantly, these seemingly throwaway scenes can become part of your writing later. Reading through your own writing, even if it belongs to no particular story will help you brainstorm with yourself – try to ascribe story to setting, if all other inspiration fails you.

Not everything that you write will be golden, but it shouldn’t stop you from writing. Think of it as exercising that part of your brain that sees these stories before the rest of your brain lets you in on it.

There is an upcoming interview that may bring the story back in some other guise. There’s research to do, songs to sing and poems to write. I may have slowed a little, but I ain’t done… There’s plenty of story left in me. And come Black Friday, there will be a few cheaters between the sheets (for the paperback at least). 

So back to work, I have stories to write and a cover to design! 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Friends and Players and Happy Endings

Finally, autumn has arrived.

The season has a built-in nostalgia that poets have honed for millennia, what with its golden coolness into the darkness of winter. The presence of the Pope clamors for kindness, but I am still writing stories on the aftermath of infidelity.

It’s not impossible to be kind, but it can be hard. Infidelity is not as black and white as one would want it to be every single time. The problem, as it is with any system, is that humans can foul it easily.

The latest story that I am tackling is about how an infidelity affects a friendship. The setting is based on an innocent moment I witnessed once. In essence, I am rewriting history, and it is a strange process when you reverse things and take something chaste and infuse it with sex and sin.

The story is not done yet, but it seems clear that it is easier to muck up something pure than it is to purify something that was putrid to start. Being omnipotent over the lives of characters and their outcomes isn't as fulfilling when you destroy good things, though, and I wish I'd have a magical drink to erase the memory of my actions as I create these scenarios!

As with the rest of the stories, the goal is to try to capture the emotional aftermath of cheating. The challenge is not to end up with a dozen stories that resemble Victorian morality plays.

The research can be illuminating and depressing at once – especially when friends and family offer their own versions and anecdotes (or worse yet, when you recognize a player after you'd lived with the ideal that they were better than that: ugh!).

The latest story was meant to be about friends, but it seems more interesting to explore two kinds of friendship, if the format allows for it – it may end up being two separate stories. One a friendship betrayed by turning it into something it could never be, and then a friendship betrayed by destroying the nature of what it could have been… Different meanings for what seemed like simple words in complicated situations.

The problem is that some of these stories, they cannot end well. It’s not morality that determines how it ends; it’s the odds and the fact that sometimes the best of intentions are not enough.

Sometimes hearts get broken, the heartless get the upper hand, and happiness is not within reach. Sometimes revenge is not as satisfying as the fantasy of it. Sometimes, though, setting a liar’s trailer on fire . . . oh, it fills one with a natural high that is worth a possible arrest.

It’s all about the journey… and the ability to get all these stories together in one collection before the holidays. (Fingers crossed!)

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Clean Stove for Better Writing

We tend to cook every night at the Temple, though this summer we have also heavily relied on salads and cooking has not been necessary (especially on particularly hot and humid evenings when the temperatures reach three-digits in our kitchen).

Once a week I give the stove a thorough scrubbing. It doesn’t need it every single week, as some weeks all we do is heat up stuff and we wipe any spills immediately.

Still, every week, I take the grills off and open up the little stovetop, and scrub it inside and out until it sparkles.

It keeps the stove in good working condition and it is simply good kitchen hygiene. That’s the simple answer.

Why do it when it doesn’t need it? Because it reinforces discipline. When you freelance and you call your own schedule – whether by choice, necessity or lack of work – you still must pin tasks to your daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual routines. It brings constancy to life (and often makes life easier by its substance).

Tasks that require little intellect and a certain level of repetitive action allow you to go into automatic pilot and clear your head for a few minutes (it’s the real poor man’s meditation).This is not to say that the action is mindless, because it isn’t, you are focused on the task and any thoughts are reserved to the act itself.

During these reveries, sometimes characters talk to themselves or to each other, or I resolve problematic scenes. Challenges pop into my head that will define the strength of a character. Story lines stream like little movies in my head…

Sometimes I get lost in the Johnson Bros. Castles of England serving platter on the wall and my brain goes into a Julian Fellowes’ festival.

I don’t seek my cleaning sessions as ways to write while not writing. I clean and sometimes clearing my head results in great ideas coming to me, of new ideas emerging, of old ideas evolving.

Sometimes all you get through cleaning is momentary purging of worries or fears or sadness – whatever you have been carrying that week that has saddled you with emotional baggage nobody needs.

I’m not telling you that cleaning stuff will bring you catharsis or closure. I am suggesting that you find something that gives you a reasonable facsimile for coping, venting, best practice living, and better operating specs. Find your own automaton-inducing task.

Remember: not every scullery maid's story is a disaster!
Clean up your inbox, wash your car, find something that will keep you occupied for at least half an hour. Find the time. Even if you don’t want to—especially if you do not want to!

Why bother? Because you need to remind yourself, body/mind/soul, that the more things change some things remain; you can melt away worries and fear; and, even if you experience a slowdown of creativity, ideas can pop out of the simple act of scrubbing a stove. Hope is never lost, because it is all within; it may just require a little effort and discipline.

If nothing else, you’ll have a spectacularly shiny stove! 

Full disclosure: this week's stove scrubbing made me realize a character needed to confront the memory of a parent in a way that shook her strength for a moment. At the end of the story, she is stronger for it and finds it easier to move on with her life on her own terms.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Writing About Emotional Confrontations

I just finished writing a short story about a woman who is running herself ragged. Her father is in the hospital, dying, and this has brought up memories of her long-suffering mother and her father’s infidelities (some of which she witnessed).

What unravels in our story is a pattern of behavior and an awakening.

The question is whether I can hit all the right emotions. At what point do you hold back before you waltz into the turf of melodrama?

You want the story to be clear, to depict what the characters are going through by their words and actions, without having to necessarily explain their specific emotion in the moment.

You want to be clear but never obvious, understand? You want to leave the reader with some details that makes her wonder, that leaves her perhaps wanting more but also trying to fill in the blanks in her own mind. You want to evoke rather than dictate, and let her (the reader) interpret the story in a way that is meaningful to her.

Reading, to me, is not all passive. I believe that the moment you imagine yourself in the story, in the setting, as a character or a voyeur of it, you are interacting intellectually and emotionally. And if you get to that point, the cleverer of your readers will also imagine details you left unsaid or forgot altogether. They become co-writers and co-conspirators.

I spell-checked and reread it. Then I added a few lines. Then I deleted a bunch of words. I added a scene. Now it is time to shelve it. It will be proofed in a few weeks, unless I can enlist a volunteer to read it and critique it for me.

The plan is to have enough stories to release The Bloody Trail of Disenchantment as a stocking stuffer for the holidays.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Wicked and The Righteous

This week has been a little chaotic. First, the hackers made good on their threat and released almost 10 gigabytes of data. The second leak was almost twice as big!

The data dump includes e-mail addresses, account details (like preferences/fetishes) and logins.

The caveat, of course, is that Ashley Madison did not verify e-mail addresses upon registration, so searching simply on this criteria might get you a false positive as anyone could use a fake account to register. And some people do things like that to cause others’ problems.

When I was in college one of my professors antagonized a student who filled out all these magazine subscription cards to nudie magazines and sex toy and trashy lingerie catalogs in the professor’s name, and sent it to his office (at a Jesuit college). The nuns running the mailroom were not pleased.  

Many a husband will use that excuse too. “No, honey, that was probably one of those clowns at the office trying to be funny. Those silly bastards!”

What will be harder to explain is the credit card transactions that include names, street addresses, amounts paid, and predilections… Only those smart enough to have used anonymous prepaid cards are walking around not sweating bullets.

Already repercussions have begun. The first American casualty is proponent of family values and Christian conservative Josh Duggar; many others will follow...

The coverage has taken a variety of routes: the possibility that government and military personnel may have been compromised and are in danger of being targets of extortion.

Others are advocating data Armageddon, if Ashley Madison can be broken into, what of the Pentagon or {insert terrifying alternative here}. Of course, we are all accepting the corporate minions telling us their encryption was impenetrable. There is evidence that employees had tried to warn management there was vulnerability in their system that was never addressed or patched.

Then there is the camp that are shaming the shamers, “Ermahgerd, how dare you enjoy the comeuppance of innocent philanderers?!” Surely, this cannot be what Martin Luther meant when he addressed simul iustus et peccator!

These stories warn that marriages will break down, divorces will happen, reputations will be lost, families will be broken, and children will be forever affected by this. This may be true, but I wonder if the writers realize that the people whose lives are about to be upended are partially responsible for their possible fate.

To me, following the story and all its repercussions is mostly research and some guilty pleasure—but it is all literary. I am fairly sure that this will not be the thing that causes the collapse of western civilization.

In the meantime, I look forward to the John Grisham bestseller (both the fiction and the non-fiction versions) of the massive class action that will come of this. Although what I really want is the Nelson DeMille comedy-thriller about the collapse of Stepford. Perhaps Michael Connelly doing homage to Tom Clancy and doing the military-themed thriller! I suppose Patricia Cornwell might do a mystery about the mounting bodies of sinners and a private investigator turned serial killer with delusions of Biblical executioner. I have no idea how King would write it, but I imagine he has been giggling for a month.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

What Lies Beneath the Sinkhole

For those of you playing along at home, life stared us in the face, screamed, “Plot twist!” and went all Joss Whedon on us.

A relatively quiet morning became an intriguing thing when I was distracted from properly setting up a story. A philandering husband and his wife have a life-altering fight in their kitchen (while the kids have a heartbreaking conversation seated at the table and witnessing their parents’ marriage fall apart, and the dog is hiding under the very same table that saw many family meals whence it begged and received delicious morsels from all members of its pack).

I simultaneously heard and felt a truck go by. And this began a fun internal dialogue.

Hmm, that’s not a garbage truck.

Wrong day for garbage, anyways.

Trucks don’t go by here. Ever.

Well, except after it snows. Ugh, I hate snow… I hope we have a mild winter this year.


OMG! There’s firemen on the block!!!

The rest, as they say, is history – or at least current events – and involves a 20 X 20 X 20 massive sinkhole that brought more people to the block than have ever been on this block on the 30 years we’ve lived here!

And certainly, there is inherent drama in what is happening. A writer friend suggested that I take pictures and notes because there’s a story here. Many stories. A book!

She is right, of course. But this is Brooklyn. We don’t operate the same way other places do.
And, for the Brooklynites, you know if Marty Markowitz were still been Borough President, he would have shown up with coffee and bagels, the Monsignor, a Rabbi, and the Imam from the local mosque and had press conference, a prayer circle, and a plan before noon!  

For instance, a massive sinkhole that swallows a busy intersection in a commercial thoroughfare, in Manhattan, would cause traffic to be halted for blocks (for weeks!) barricades erected to protect the citizenry, possible evacuations, National Guardsmen to watch over us, and train their weapons on the hellmouth waiting for the Big Bad to show itself and wipe it from existence…

But this is Brooklyn. We suspended bus service for the blink of an eye, and even slowed down train service in the morning so as to not disturb the kaiju that might stir in the guts of our borough. After a thorough examination by the electric and gas utilities people, Environmental Protection and other City bureaucrats, as well as visits by media and tourists and lookie-loos who traveled here to see the thing on the first day; the second day pretty much defines how resilient Brooklyn is.

Bus service is back on schedule. “Just drive around it! Watch out for the gaping hole to the left…”

The first day every single neighbor was out, trying to figure out what was happening. The second day, those who could, slept in. The kids played but no longer noticed the men in neon colored jackets.

Reminds me of this bit by Colin Quinn where he explains why there are no ghost stories originating in Brooklyn. It’s because here, after the rattling of chains and other blood curdling sounds, a Brooklynite would come out of their place to confront the ghost.

“Hey, yo! You the one going ‘woo woo woo’ up and down the hallway? Stop that shit!”

We write our own stories here. And we don’t let the world define them for us, either. I mean, your Good Night, Moon is our Go the F*ck to Sleep.

We once voted a dead guy into office because we didn’t like the choices left by his demise. We've stared down hurricanes and tornadoes and epic Nor’easters, given 'em all the finger, and gone right back to our bagel and coffee.

Our roads may buckle under and be swallowed into nothingness, but you can’t break us! Still, the stories that this episode will influence ought to be interesting.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ashley Madison Schadenfreude

I have a real evil streak.

All writers do… It’s a consequence of absolute power. We can create worlds, universes, and the rules contained therein. We have absolute power over life and death for our characters.

That’s not strictly true all the time, mind you. Sometimes stories develop on their own and get away from you, and you find yourself writing a scene and finding out as you write how it develops. 

But writers sometimes display a bit of a sadistic side that may not be obvious in everyday conversation.

I am in the midst of writing and researching a collection of stories on the aftermath of infidelity. Some stories are easier to write than others. It isn’t coming as easily as the stories in Because She Was A Woman.

Then the security breach at Ashley Madison happened and things changed.

A rush of adrenaline and giddiness hit me all at once, and I was light headed and giggly.

I find myself rooting for the hackers and hoping they follow through on the threat to release the data that has been compromised; that it is true that the parent company has not been deleting personal and financial information for their subscribing adulterers; and that chaos shall meet the lying horndogs!

Sordid? Yes. Ah, yes, but it makes for great reading.

In reality, I cannot approve of stealing private information – not even from morally corrupt people. I approve of ethical hacking, but this is akin to a terrorist act in cyber security.

Although I will say this for the hackers: if they have caffeinated my Muse into overdrive, they will also prove to be excellent for the national economy. I predict a significant increase in the sale of expensive candies and chocolates, flowers, and even more expensive jewelry. (There may also be a rash of divorce actions and then the money will go to the lawyers, but let’s treat one demon class at a time, shall we?)

Having seen the very real aftermath of infidelity – in wives and husbands, lovers and partners, children and in-laws – I know that this is nothing to make light of it. That’s the empathic, human side recognizing that there is actual pain and grieving involved.

I know the demoralizing horror when you realize someone you loved and trusted has betrayed you. Even as your heart sinks, it doesn’t kill the love right away, and that struggle between your dignity, the truth, and the end of your commitment has no amusing parts to it. It’s all tragedy!

The writer in me, though, reading between the lines, she immediately is inspired by schadenfreude. I'm having a ball imagining the panic. I'm not sure if I can do it justice in writing just yet, but until I commit it to paper, I'll repeat what I keep hearing in my head: bwahahahahaha!

It's tremendous fun to imagine that caged rat look liars get when they feel they are about to get caught and there is nothing they can do to save themselves. Ultimately, if the hackers don’t, I have a strong feeling that I will be personally taking quite a few cheaters down.

All for your reading pleasure… That’s right, I will surrender to my inner evil witch just to entertain you. You’re welcome.