Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Life Rolls and Irregularities

Just a note to say that I've got stuff going on in my life that keeps me from even knowing what day it is most of the time.  Some of which I will talk about later (like my uncle who passed away -- I want to do a tribute post). And some I won't because, even though it seems like I tell folks everything, I really don't.

Dean Wesley Smith calls these periods "Life Rolls."  Bad luck comes your way, nothing you can do but clean up.
They tend to sneak up on a person.

I want to post 2-3 times a week.  I actually have roughed in posts written -- lots of them -- just not finished.  One of those unfinsihed posts explains why I'm not finishing them (it's actually a strategy).  For now, I expect that on Wednesdays, I'll continue to post the Excavating a Genre, because I think it fits in my schedule.

I also have a couple of posts on how I'm teaching myself to read aloud.  Also some thoughts on building a generation of readers.  And a few other things I don't remember.....

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Excavating A Genre 1 - The Book List

I am a cross-genre writer.  You could even say that I am a low-brow literary writer, in that I like popular/commercial storytelling -- I like movies, and TV and comic books and kids' stories and various kinds of pulp fiction from the past -- but I also like experimenting with it and mixing it up/  I like to take a literary writer's approach to it.

My goal as a writer is to be sui generis -- of my own type. I am my genre.  This upsets genre purists, but like Pop-eye, I yam what I yam. (Toot!)

And yeah, much to the detriment of my success as a writer: one of my favorite things is to take genres and tropes that I find boring or clichéed or dated or over-done and pull them apart and find something wonderful about them -- and put them back together in a way that I like.

That's why you'll see me talk about flawed, non-masterpieces here as often as great classics.  Mining for diamonds in the rough is something I enjoy.

And I write about it here because 1.) it interests me, and 2.) I do think that the methods I use can be useful to more conventional writers who may not want to invent their own genre, but do want to find their voice -- the unique thing in their own imagination that sets them apart from others in their genre.

Last year I created the Story Game (best place to start with that is probably the index post at the end of the Situation Game) to this end.

Orphans On Trains

The project I am wrapped up in now was spawned by a bout of nostalgia last fall, in which I noticed a certain pattern of many stand-alone books I read as a kid.  These weren't always the best books I'd ever read, but there was something about them that stuck with me, when some of my favorite books have faded.

Furthermore, I find that I use the the tropes from these stories within many of my own stories. (Just as I usually have some aspect of mystery in them too.)  And this particular batch of stories is old-fashioned and really suit the retro world of The Serial. (I.e. the silent movie era inspired world of The Misplaced Hero, and Misplaced Baroness.)  So I'm thinking developing a junior version of that world (which I'll tell you about later).

The first thing I noticed about what these stories had in common was that they started with a journey of someone; usually a child, bravely (though often fearfully) heading alone into an unknown situation. Often involuntarily.  The protagonists were often orphans or virtual orphans (i.e. parents suffering from a disease or misfortune that made them unable to care for the kid). 

There are a few variations, and I'm going to explore the books that interest me and figure out if they actually constitute more than a theme or trope -- if they rise to a formula or genre. (And in the meantime, I'll talk about several types of similar genre/tropes that overlap with this.)

Here is a list of some of those books.  Some are classics, but many of them are lost, out of print and hard to find, but those of you of a certain age may have read them too.  I'm going to talk about these off and on for a while here on the blog. For the lesser known books I have included a line about how the book fits into the theme. And also in some cases, links to where you can buy the books at Amazon or download from Gutenberg project.

Understood Betsy - An over-protected orphan city girl, who is sent to live with easy going country relatives in New England. (Don't buy any commercial ebooks of this -- most are rip-offs of the Gutenberg version.)

The Avion My Uncle Flew - a boy from Wyoming whose single father gets a job in France after the war. The kid unwillingly learns French and solves a mystery involving spies and the murder of a prize pig. (Out of print, but available used at Amazon.)

Emil and the Detectives - a boy traveling alone is robbed and must track the villain down with the help of people he meets. (Best version with original illustrations at Amazon.)

For Love of a Donkey - an orphan, her donkey, and the old man sent to take her to an orphanage, walk across post-war Germany in order to save the donkey. (Out of Print, available used at Amazon., and also available to read online only at The Internet Archive's Open Library.)

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - a "poor relation" is sent to live with her rich cousin. Melodrama and adventure ensues. (In print and available at Amazon and other ebook and paper book retailers and your local library.)

Unknown Title/Author - Story about an orphan girl taking a buckboard and driving across the outback of Australia.

Unknown Title/Author - a girl sent out west to live with relatives in a fort. (Post Indian Wars)

The Railway Children - A family sent to live in the country after their father is disgraced and arrested. (Available everywhere, including free at Project Gutenberg.  Also a really nice free audiobook at Librivox.)

More famous and classic books with similar pattern:

Oliver Twist
King Of The Wind
Jane Eyre
Lemony Snicket

The first thing these books have in common is a theme, and that theme is most reflected in Understood Betsy -- the book that spawned these thoughts in me. It's a rather more quaint and wholesome book than I liked as a kid. (As a kid, I despised Bonanza in favor of the more gritty High Chaparral, for instance.) But I found that I actually liked it when I read it, and elements of it stuck with me.

So, as I mentioned above, I really do have to tear it apart and find out why that wholesome book was so memorable to me.

And that's where we'll start next time -- likely on Friday. (I'll be posting these on Wednesdays and/or Fridays.)

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Next Up - Excavating a Genre

This was a hell of a week.  Actually, when it come to medical, family, social, technical matters, it's been a hell of a year, but more than usual this month.

All the same, my brain is back in gear, and I have plenty to blog about and to write.  It's just taking me a little longer to get all the pieces in place.

I had this idea about a shift in my schedule that should make me oh, so much more productive, and the very next day, a series of disasters commenced that kept me from getting anywhere near having any kind of schedule at all.  I couldn't even predict when I would be sleeping.

All the same, I'm getting back on track, and I think I have the real next blog series for you: a series about exploring some familiar tropes and building a genre out of them.  Or at least a sub-genre and personal voice out of it.

The approach I'm taking is similar to the approach I did when I was doing the first work on the Situation Game and started with exploring the "character structure" of certain kinds of romantic suspense stories.

The point of that was to unearth not just the core of the actual genre, but also to identify my own personal sub-genre.  The points that appeal to me about the genre, and make it mine as a reader and a writer. 

This time, though, I'm looking at something a little more nebulous. Something that is an identifiable trope, and yet doesn't really have it's own genre name.  You see it mostly in children's fiction, or stories about children, but sometimes you see the pattern in books for and about adults.

I think of it as the "Child Embarking on a New Life Alone" story.

Like the "Hostage Story" I wrote about last year, this pattern crosses over a whole lot of similar genres.  It fits with road stories and journey stories. It certainly crosses with heroic "quest" adventure.  It suits the "picaresque" type story I learned about in college. It even fits with the classic "issue" stories of the past.  It's also a kind of pioneer story -- which usually involves a whole family rather than a child alone.

So over the next few weeks I will, sporadically, write about those genres, and the various books which struck this specific chord with me over the years.  I'll also be talking about how these tropes have influenced various of my own books.

(Not the least of which is the book I hope to release next month: Moon Child, Ready or Not.  This is a long fantasy book -- kind of a meta-quest book -- that I think hits pretty much all of those types of stories.)

I don't know if I'll have a full post ready for you on Wednesday, but I will at least post a preliminary book/movie list of the stories that I'll be talking about.  Many of these books are out of print. There are a few that I don't even remember the title or author.  Some are famous and current.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Recovering Habits: Basements and 8-Hour Challenges

I have recovered quite a bit since last week.  I have been dreaming and stories are coming back to me.  However, I have been significantly knocked out of my habits.  And.... as tends to happen when life throws you for a loop, bad habits storm in, while the good ones run for the hills.

This is not entirely a bad thing.  Being able to zone out when life is hitting you hard can be a great way to keep it together.  I happen to play puzzle games when this happens.  And I often come out of it with SERIOUS game addiction.  I am currently struggling with Bejeweled.

So the problem I cited last week -- having lost the ability to do certain things -- turned out to be temporary. The real problem is that I have such a terrible need to get certain little gems all in a row, that I sometimes wish that cars on the highway would just slide over into that open space rigth beside them and create a five-in-a-row lightening gem.

My brain, now that it has recovered most of its parts, needs puzzle diversion challenges, and I have two tried and true methods.  They both are ways to practice accomplishing things.

Method #1 - Clearing Junk

This is a particularly useful way to get back in the swing of things after major life issues, but it also works when you have just been too busy to think and a lot of junk has piled up that you didn't have time to take care of.  I also tend to call this "GTD" which stands for Dave Allen's "Getting Things Done" but you don't have to use any particular methodology.

Pick a closet, a junk drawer, the pantry cupboards, your desk, the garage -- anything you've been meaning to get done -- and start clearing it out or fixing it or doing whatever needs to be done with it.  If you really need to rebuild habits -- to the extent that you aren't writing anything -- pick a BIG project and do this in your writing time.  (This works extra well if it overlaps with your creative life in some way -- either involves the subject matter of something you're writing, or you are pulling out old creative work.)

And treat it like a writing project.  Brainstorm.  Plan, and organize, and even buy things for it.  Make seven trips to Staples to buy banker boxes and a quick document scanner.  Start taking notes on further projects this one will spawn. ("Oh, look at all those family photos. I really should scan those for posterity...." Don't stop to scan.  DO take notes on what you might need to do that project -- like a slide scanner, or a space to work in -- and put that list with the photos.)

You will find this job often reflects the sort of discipline you have for your writing, even those "blocked" moments -- just as you need to stop to beat out a detail, or do some research, so you MUST head to Staples for the aforementioned banker boxes.  Possibly to the point of dropping everything in order to do this.

I will likely talk more about this next week, as I have many amusing things to say about what I'm doing in my basement this week.  Right now I will just point out one thing:

In the course of creating an archive for my old photos, artwork, and ephemera/paper collectables, I came across a book of cartoons I did in high school.  They were all on the theme of "Sheep."  They involved these little straight-faced sheep -- fluffy cloud-like body, closed eyes, no mouth, stick legs -- who, in the course of ever more elaborate puns, did all sorts of funny and interesting things.  The captions were not actually clever, nor supposed to be, but were setups for the sheep themselves, who were strangely expressive for creatures with no facial expression.

There are 40-50 of these, and several more captionless sketches.  (My favorites are the little sheep playing a big cello, and the "sheep wreck.")  I will probably post some later on, because my scanner is in a drawer and there is no place to put it.  I don't know what I'm going to do with it, maybe a book, maybe a website.  Maybe t-shirts?

In the meantime the other method of getting back into gear.....

Method #2 - The 8-Hour Challenge

This started with Joe Konrath. Fueled by alcohol, I think, he sent out this challenge one day a year or so ago for people to conceive, write, edit, format, and upload a little book in the period of eight hours.  At the end of the day in question, people sent him their links, and he posted them somewhere.

This, of course, is insane.

Which means that a bunch of people on KBoards decided to make this a regular event.  Except they change the rules somewhat.  Not all on one day, the eight hours don't have to be consecutive. I think they actually expanded it to an outside limit of 24-hours (non-consecutive).

And that is actually a magical thing.  Because if you say "I'm going to do X in a week," you really are leaving yourself a lot of fuzzy time.  You might spend 60-80 hours in a week, or you might spend 8 minutes.  If you actualy give yourself a goal on accomplishing something in a specific number of working hours, though, that can really focus you on a task. 

For instance: This month, the KB folks are choosing finishing unfinished works in their 8-24 hour challenge.  It's all about getting 'er done.  And very often all we need is a few concentrated hours to actually finish something.

I'm going to do some non-fiction for this challenge.  I have been meaning to collect posts from this blog, for instance, into themed booklets.  I have gone so far as to comb through the 1300+ old posts and picked out a number of them, organized which ones might go together.... and proceeded to get stuck on the editing for publication.  Because it's really easy to say "You know, that one's practically ready right now, but this one that goes with it really needs work. I could write a new one from scratch...."

And then get lost in editing and super-ambitious rewrites.  Or just think it's too big of a job for now, and go off and do something else.

So I'm going to stop dithering and being ambitious and just say, "You have eight hours to get this booklet done -- and only six for editing. Save the other two for formatting and such."

I've done similar things -- without intending it -- on finishing a short story.  I'll find a draft that's 3/4 done, or done but for some tricky editing, and I'll just see how far I can get with it in a single session.  And often, if I did this because I had a specific idea in mind, I will get it done, and ready to do that one night.

So, anyway, I'm still not fully back in gear, but I am getting there.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Fog of the Change

This is a difficult blog post to write.

Oh, no,  not emotionally difficult.  It's just that words are failing me a lot lately, and ALL blog posts are difficult to write.  It's difficult to write a shopping list, actually.

It's a hormone thing.  The French refer to it as something that happens to ladies of "un certain age."  Also known as "The Change." The Big M: Menopause.

And I had been warned: Many if not most women experience a fogginess of brain at the time of the change.  It can last for months, a year, even forever.

What I hadn't been warned about was that this "fogginess" has a devastating affect on my creativity.  I have lost most of my narrative functions.  I don't even dream any more.

And that's downright scary, considering that I have always been a lucid dreamer.  That is, for as long as I can remember, I have been able to drop myself into a dream state at will, and when I sleep my dreams have always been vibrant, strange, entertaining narratives in which I play many parts.

My usual habit, on going to bed, is to drop myself into the skin of a character and let my unconscious run loose.  But for the past month or two I drop myself into a character and then... nothing.  The character sits there until I go to sleep.  On the few occasions where I think I remember a dream, it was purely abstract -- no characters, no language, no drama or emotion.  More like... math homework.

On the other hand, it is less scary, because it tells me that my issues with writing really are biological.  And it's also kind of familiar, because during peri-menopause -- the build up to The Change -- I had monthly migraines that were a mini version of this.

What To Do About This

With a migraine, the main strategy is waiting it out.  And that may be possible with this.  The fact that I am aware of it may be a sign it's letting up.  (Often I didn't know what was wrong during a migraine until late in the process.)

But those words "... it could last as long as a year, or maybe forever..." kinda hang over my head.  If this is a permanent change in brain function, then it will have to be dealt with.

Start with the usual health stuff.  Consulting doctor, etc.  (However, the "fog" issue is not something well studied, and most of the literature kinda shrugs at whether anything will actually work for it.  Or even why it happens.)

Lose weight ("There's estrogen in them there fat cells!")  Except one of the side effects of this is an insanely short attention span.  I mean, it's not just the Homer Simpson effect: "I should cut out donuts from my diet .... mmmmmmm, donuts."  It's more a matter that I am thinking about how easy it is to cut out pop from my diet because I'm not feeling any cravings for it at all while I'm sipping away at a Big Gulp, and then when I notice that I just finished it, I am thinking "No more refills" WHILE I REFILL THE DANG THING.

If the ability to hold two opposing thoughts in my head is a test of intelligence, I have become a genius.

Occupational Therapy

It seems to me, though, that if this is a long term thing, that the first step is to treat it like an injury or a stroke.  Figure out what you can and can't do, and retrain yourself.

What I can do: I can beat out a scene.  This is very strange, but I can take a scene that was stuck for years, and beat out the logic of "this happens, then that happens, then that happens" and make it flow emotionally, etc.  I think this is because fitting the pieces of a scene together can be like a puzzle, and I can do puzzles.

What I can't do: I can't go on and write that scene.  I can't do "voice" right now.  The best I can do is flounder around with false starts for a long time, until I get a sentence or two.

I can: Edit finished work that just needs corrections or pragmatic shortening. (This is good because I've got a novel for you.  More about that in another post.)

I can't: Edit things that require new passages.  (Can't do voice.)

I can't: do big plot arcs, or do much with brainstorming.

I can't: do those analytical blog posts I usually do. The ones where I break down a story or film, or go into depth on it.  That started last year: I can start it, but I hit a wall.  I find that right now, I'm hitting a within a paragraph of starting.

And that, I think, might have some fatigue issue.  Brainstorming is probably a fatigue issue too.  So I'm holding off on that for a while -- just testing the waters now and then.

The big issue, though, is voice.  If I can't drop into a character and have something happen, that's a problem.  But part of that problem is that I tend to do that on a very advanced level.  My existing projects require highly nuanced voices.  So here is where the occupational therapy kicks in: I need to go back and do some beginner things.  Classroom exercises.  Writing from a prompt, jut a paragraph or so, and see if I can remind my brain of what it used to do.

The New Book

I'm also doing final edits on a book I wrote way back in the 1990s.  It is mostly well polished, because I was sending it around to publishers back then.  Editors found it charming but hard to place in commercial terms.  (I will tell you more abou that later -- probably Friday.)  There is one chapter that rambles too much, but otherwise, it really does give me an idea of what I'm aiming at.

So, ironically, I hope to be publishing a "new" book in October, in spite of the brain fog.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Life as a Science Project

Time to start blogging again.  I was going to wait until the end of September, but a lifetime in academia has primed me to feel that the seasons change on Labor Day.  It's September: the start of the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.  Harvest, cool weather, colors.

I haven't seen any fuzzy caterpillars in a long time, so I can't use them to predict anything of the coming winter -- but if the orange and grey coat on Miss Cookie the Semi-Feral Cat is any indication, we're in for a doozy of a winter.

So it's time to get back to work. 

I don't have a firm blogging schedule in mind, but in general my plan is to post up to three times a week, when I have the material.  Fridays will be the "Friday Favorites" stuff: reviews and commentaries on movies and books and things like that.  Wednesdays will likely be devoted to writer stuff.  More about that ON Wednesday.

And Mondays.... Mondays will be a kind of "Life in Michigan" column. Sometimes this will be closely related to writing.  Other times, the relation to writing will be less obvious -- just that this is the life that inspires what I write.

Fermentation: Life as a Science Project

I make my own bread. And though I don't cultivate my own sour dough, all bread making depends on the culture of live active yeast.

But it has been too hot to bake most of this summer.

I also make my own yogurt -- which is basically the art of spoiling milk in just the right way.  But before you can culture it with the right bacteria, you have to pasteurize it to kill the bad bacteria.

And it's too hot for pasteurization, even if the temperature is just right for culturing the yogurt.


I never made pickles because I don't like canning, but real fermented pickles (and kim chee and sour kraut) aren't really meant to be canned.  If you do a short cut version, where you just steep them in vinegar, sure -- can them.  But if you actually ferment your own pickles, then by golly, you don't need to heat anything up.  You just salt it and let it rot.

Here's how pickles work: you pour brine over them, and the salt kills the bad bacterial, but certain positive bacteria -- the "lacto" bacterias that make yogurt and sour cream and which everybody touts as being the key to health these days -- like the salt just fine.  They get to work turning the starches and other compounds in the food into vinegar, which will also help preserve the food.

I also happen to really like lacto-fermeted lemons, but often find people make them too salty, so wouldn't it be cool to make my own?

So this summer I layered a couple of slices of lemon, and then garlic, dill and cucumber slices in a jar with a little mustard seed and peppercorns, and poured brine over them. (One tablespoon salt to a pint of water -- an average brine -- could be saltier or not, depending on how long you want to keep the pickles.)  I also poured in a little booster of yogurt whey to be sure there was some lacto bacteria around to do the job.

I then put a small glass jar on top of them to press the floating veggies down into the brine.  And I've swished and burped them every day since.

One Week Later....

Almost every recipe I came across for lacto-fermenting pickles says they should be done in three days and to leave them a week if you like them more sour.  And they also say that the brine should become cloudy in a day or two, which they did.

However, in spite of bubbling and cloudiness, and a wonderful smell of dill and garlic, my pickles right now taste wonderfully of the spices and salt ... but aren't particularly sour.  As a matter of fact, to my taste, they aren't sour at all.


It may have something to do with the fact that I forgot to use distilled water, and there's chlorine in tap water.  They do say that the chlorine dissipates after a day, and I added more yogurt whey the second day -- AND the pickles did indeed ferment as advertised. However, it was whey from Dannon yogurt, which isn't very sour.  Maybe that's an issue.

Or maybe it's just that most people are in a hurry and find that it's good enough to just let the seasonings seep into the pickles.  After a few days, the pickles do taste pretty good. They're just not sour.  There was that one recipe which said to let the pickles ferment for a month or two -- this, to me, indicates that maybe the 3-day folks are not giving it time.

I'm thinking of sticking the jar in a warm water bath like I do with yogurt.  Keep them at 90-100 degrees for 24 hours and see what happens.

I'm also thinking of starting over -- just eating these and starting another batch, this time being really strict about my ingredients, AND using a warm water bath, AND leaving it longer.

But I'm not sure the garden has any more cucumbers for me.  It has been a blight year.  So I might make kim chee or pickled lemons.

OR... maybe I should cheat and put the pickles in a seasoned vinegar bath.  Not cook or can them -- so the healthy bacteria stay around -- but just give them a little more seasoning.

Or just eat them.  Because they do taste pretty good.

In the meantime....

Happy Labor Day!

Take a moment to remember that every aspect of your life was made possible by thousands of wage laborers.  Nobody built anything without them.  Labor built the roads, manufactured the tools, harvested the crops, built the buildings, wove the cotton, made your clothes. Labor keeps the water and electricity flowing, puts together the device you're reading this on, drove the truck to transport it.  Labor makes your Big Mac, films your movies and smiles for your cameras, and sings for you iPods.

And never forget that not all that labor is fairly paid or gets a day off, or has healthcare, or safety protections.

See you in the funny papers.