Monday, September 29, 2014

Don't Write This: Fiction in Danger Zones

Senility as wish fulfillment.
I've already written a full review of Jo Walton's My Real Children, but I want to talk about something not in my review, and in no review I've yet read. The novel follows Patricia Cowan as she suffers a peculiar senility, forgetting most of her life, and then seeming to recall two different lives in high detail. Late in the novel, we see how the onset of senility hits her in both lives, and in one her lover dies. Patricia immediately hopes her senility will make her forget the death happened. This excited me. 

For the last two years of his life, I called my grandfather every night to make sure he had at least a little daily contact with a family member. He hated living in an old folks home, and was very demented on top of that. Our nightly contact made him remember me more than the other grandchildren, though there were still calls when he mistook me for his son, friend, and on one night, his mother. Living that intensely with a disability can stifle the way you think about it. It's easier to default to a somber, anodyne mode, both in avoiding conflicts, and in taking your mind off of things. It takes a different mind to see something so painful and be creative with it.

In reading that paragraph of Walton's novel, I wasn't offended. It was enlivening to read someone subvert our default thoughts of dementia, and simultaneously, tap into those desires, because in moments of weakness we've all wanted to forget things. In the moment, I could only compare it to FX's Archer.

I'm probably the only person to parallel My Real Children and Archer, but one of Archer's great strengths is its anarchic sense of humor. People mistake the show as dark, but it features the lightest hearted graphic tiger mauling I've ever seen. The series uses the drug trade, asphyxia fetishes, eco-terrorism, homophobia and the Oedipal complex as fodder for amazing character humor. It is neither didactic nor cynical; it's creative enough with its deployment of highly flawed characters to avoid offense while depicting the people themselves as intensely offensive. This is great for some audiences (like me), but also stifles how others think about creativity in danger zones, making them think it has to be transgressive.


Archer is often transgressive, as is most comedy about touchy subjects, because that's the easy edge for a laugh. But take George Carlin's early performances of The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television. For the first six he's juvenile and profane – and then he hits "fuck." It's the beginning of life, he says, and yet it's something we use to hurt each other. Very rare for George Carlin, he isn't sure about his footing on a topic, and only has one joke, before saying he'll try to make a full bit out of it next year. He did, and the later versions have never been as interesting to me. That he's vulnerable and unsure about something so touchy, after being so flippant about the other touchy subjects is a haunting deviation.

As I've aged, I've become increasingly attracted to artists who can remain creative in danger zones. It seems either the hardest thing to do (plausible) or so risky to market that it's avoided (also plausible). Certainly if you botch your attempt at a new angle on pedophilia then you can offend a wide audience. But if you try, you might get John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In, and that scene wherein the pedophile Hakan rents a child prostitute, but is then so disturbed by how the boy is treated that he tries to give him enough money to run away. This foreshadows the compassionate angle Lindqvist later casts over the vampire/familiar relationship. The compassion of a pedophile in an otherwise uncaring world was so unexpected that it gave me goosebumps, where most vampire stories give me boredom. 

A predator in need of companionship.
These deviations stir me up. In most art you can get a sense of how touchy subjects will be handled; Grimdark Fantasy will probably slouch into rape, and a children's cartoon will probably avoid or didactically instruct about disabilities. Predictable paths are not always wrong, and often writing from a place of reliable sensitivity can avoid opening wounds. But I don't accept the failure state of attempted creativity in a danger zone as loathsome. My general reaction is discomfort for an author who probably knows they screwed up on something meaningful. It reads like seeing someone fall when both of us thought they should have flown.

Maybe I'm so attracted to these because I haven't figured out their parameters yet. There's a strong attraction for some people mired in what we don't yet understand. But to remain flexible with in writing about topics as tender as senility and pedophilia is too much for most artists. It's why most won't touch it at all. That might be why the few that can do it, even for a paragraph are so precious.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Bathroom Monologue: End of the World Sale


My nephew forced me to buy the chair at a yard sale. The "End of the World Sale," the plywood sign called it, and the chair was propping up the left side of the sign. The chair had only been owned for a week, real leather on the arm rests, and real steel in the supports. Walnut brown with a red undertone and yellow stitching, not as elegant as black models, but distinct. My nephew said I'd use it in my new writing room. He said I had to get writing again, which was his way of saying I needed to get over my wife. Little did he know, little did I know.

See, the seat cushion sighed when I sat on it for the first time in the morning. The same sound as so many of Ruth's sighs, when she'd get in after double-shifts and plop beside me to boot up Netflix. And I have this habit of leaning to much to the left when I'm hesitating over a plot idea, and every time I did, something in the supports grunted. I swear, grunted, like when Ruth was upset at me, the minor upsets, like I'd forgotten the turn signal on a vacant road, or put the toilet paper in facing the wrong way. I figured the chair had sat on the grass too long and some dew had gotten into whatever gears a chair has.

Then there was this Wednesday night when I wrote. Really wrote, for the first time since I couldn't anymore. A whole short story in one sitting, and I was at least a third of the way into another one when I realized I'd been holding the same posture the whole time, my back never touching the chair. I rubbed my eyelids and reclined, and the chair…

Man, I know that noise. I'm the only person who ever made Ruth make that particular squeal. Me, and peppermint gelato.

I never got it to make that sound again. You know what nephew said? To oil the chair. With peppermint oil. And people ask why Ruth and I never wanted kids.

It's not haunted. I don't know if I believe in hauntings, but I know I don't believe in this one. It's that one time I got the wrong e-mail from my sister-in-law at the wrong time, and I sighed, and I know I sat forward, and air escaped the cushion at the same time, and it sounded like Ruth was sighing with me. And that never happened when she was alive, but I spent the next two hours imagining how it could've. Wishing it did. I slept downstairs instead of in the bed across from the office.

The urge is to write about this, or take it as a sign and write about Ruth. Except I can't start a paragraph about her without devolving into how much I fucked hate and don't understand what are aneurysms are, and I'd need to research them, and I can't enter that word into Google. I can't bear the sound the chair might make, or that it might not make a sound afterward. That it might go as quiet as a floor model.

Anyway, I'm writing again. Three terrible short stories, and now something that's inflating into a novella. The chair has sounded like she was giggling at three parts so far. It's about the things you might find at an end of the world sale.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

This House That Hunts Vampires For You



The modern world has not done enough to safeguard against vampires. The corrupt the young and drink the old, but the bravest hunters still travel in Trans Ams and fight on even footing with these monsters. That’s why we’re introducing a new product: your house.

LoreHouse ™ is not a mobile home you drag on a trailer hitch. No Sir or Madame, this is a titanium-reinforced domicile, coming in one- and two-story models, mounted on indestructible chicken legs using our patented Baba Yaga technology. Not only is the house capable or pursuing and crushing any folklore you encounter, but by becoming your new legal residence, it is impossible for biters to enter unbidden. Simply leave the front open and any undesirables that accidentally fall inside will combust.

Ever wished you had more silver nitrate or crucifixes as you were stranded in a wheat field, surrounded by bat noises? With LoreHouse ™, you’ll never worry you left something at home. Home will come with you, ensuring you’re equipped and have had a good night’s sleep before you stake your claim.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Last Murder Mystery You'll Ever Need

How impractical would it be to get Angela Lansbury, Tony Shalhoub, David Suchet, Emily Deschanel and Benedict Cumberbatch to star in an Expendables-esque murder mystery*? Each playing peculiar and familiar personalities, if not necessarily named "Monk" and "Bones." I promise this isn't an excuse to have an 88-year-old Lansbury hit on Big Ben Cumberbatch, though it is an ulterior motive. No, all the detectives are on the same case to clear their names, because they are the suspects of the same locked-room murder.

Thus each will be suspicious of the others, and some directly investigating their competition. Poirot suspects Monk’s phobias are a fa├žade that would let him get away with it; Lansbury finds Deschanel suspiciously sanguine about the whole thing. But Lansbury was a mystery novelist; could she have cooked up a murder?

Whodunnit? That would spoil the fun. But the victim is most certainly their host: a butler played by Tim Curry.



*Yes, very impractical. I know.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Shame of Flash Thompson

From Pinterest.
Perhaps you know Venom. He’s the coolest Spider-Man villain. Just ask my fifteen-year-old self and he’ll tell you so. Venom has an evil costume that Spider-Man tried to throw away, and it gives him all Spidey’s powers, but also makes him stronger, sneakier, and gives him fangs and tentacles. A consummate 90’s villain.

Perhaps you know there have been multiple Venoms. The current one is Flash Thompson, a bully from Spider-Man’s high school who has since reformed, joined the military, and is using the alien super-costume to help defend his country. He became “Agent Venom.” He just joined the Guardians of the Galaxy. Yes, that one. 

Hasbro made a prestige action figure of him. Then they decided not to sell it, probably because of his niche appeal. You read the above paragraph, right? Nobody cared.

Except I cared. The costume was cool, okay? I don’t want to talk about it. I want to talk about Hasbro and Marvel recently agreeing to sell Agent Venom exclusively at one retailer.

What retailer would you pick to sell a superhero toy? Toys R Us? Target?

Try Walgreens. Not Wal-Mart. Walgreens, the chain pharmacy you can’t tell apart from CVS and Rite-Aid, is the exclusive home of Flash Thompson Venom

So I went to my local Walgreens, because that’s where I’m at in my life. I checked their toy aisle, which was more of a toy rack. There were some Ninja Turtles, Batmen and football supplies. No Marvel goodies at all.

Before I slinked away, I approached a staffer in a lavender scrub, who was re-stocking the energy bars. She immediately perked up and asked if she could help with anything.

“Do you have a Spider-Man toy called ‘Agent Venom?’” I asked.

She looked blank at me, like for a moment she’d forgotten how to be human. Then she smirked. “Black Spider-Man?”

“Yes,” I said. “Black Spider-Man.”

She led me to the freezer cases. Propped up beside the case was a cardboard box full of Flash Thompson Venoms. Dozens of their tentacles pointed at us from behind plastic wrap.

The clerk made a show of handing me one of them. I thanked her, and slinked to Check-Out.

It feels like a universal truth. Flash Thompson, a non-entity turned into a non-entity hero, then turned into non-entity merchandise you can only buy next to the freezers, far from the toy aisle of a non-entity pharmacy most people don’t even know sells toys. It’s likely that more people in my town will read the name “Agent Venom” on their way to grab a pint of Ben & Jerry’s than will ever read it in a comic book.

Now he’s sitting on my desk. We have a lot to talk about.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Happy Birthday: In Defense of the Worst Year of My Adult Life

At the last hospital visit before my birthday, the nurse said I’d had a bad year. Nurses tend to be far more positive, so when she said that, it stirred me.  In the last couple months my mother, friends, fellow writers, and even acquaintances I didn’t know were following my story said this was a bad year for me. I don’t want to agree.

I turn 33 on Thursday. Last week I realized that will mean it’s been twenty years of this neuromuscular syndrome. For our anniversary, my body began rejecting medication, and the latest thing the doctor put me on only endows me with new and unwanted side-effects. Much of 2014 was waking up every two hours with muscle spasms, of being unable to think straight, and being so beat down I couldn’t even write anymore. Family begged me to take it easy on myself, to just take May easy. May slips so easily into June, especially when all you do is suffer.

Part of me knows I’ve done more than that. As my mind’s been bogged down by pain, I reach for oversimplifications more than I ever used to let myself. Depression is alleged to work like that. So I dwell:

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Walking through a nursing home after hours

Walking through a nursing home after hours, the halls are empty but full of our sounds: generators, air pumps, washers. It's a symphony exclusively associated with human presence. Disorients when it all plays in absence of voices, footfalls and clothes swishing. This is probably what so many Horror movies/games/books strive for in mood, and I can see how it might be creepy, but it's not. It's a tickle, like my brain is waiting for society to load in with the rest of this setting.

Monday, August 11, 2014

LineCon to Otakon: A Photo Diary of My Bad Choices

It was Thursday in Baltimore, and I got in line for Otakon at around 6:45 PM. I was hungry, but figured I'd wait an hour, get my ticket and then grab dinner. After half an hour of weird line etiquette, which snaked in inexplicable loops in front of the lobby entrance, the people behind me started getting particularly angry. They bailed to get food, while I brought out my phone. I thought it would be funny to catch what they missed.


The line eventually curved around the left side of the building, where we saw it eventually snaked again and brought everyone back in the opposite direction. I tried to see where it was going to turn around again...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I haven’t read most of the great books, or, Doing the Diligence


Nope.
A fun game at conventions is to dance around what you haven’t read. There are so many nerds who get so little face-time validation elsewhere that they’re quick to condescend and lecture on behalf of the Great Roberts Heinlein and Jordan. This leads many con-goers faking having read books and participating in empty conversations. I’m not sure who it’s fun for, but it must be fun given how frequently it happens.

A game I play at conventions is confession. Bring up an old Jack Vance? I’ll admit to never having read it and ask what spoke to you about it. I’ll confess to never having read Theodore Sturgeon or Octavia Butler, or only having read Samuel Delany’s non-fiction, or only the first book of Wheel of Time and Ender’s Game. The fun of this exercise is watching people around me relax, because by going first (and going at all), I’ve let them give up pretense. Tension leaves their shoulders as they realize it’s okay.

My excuses are legion. I didn’t grow up with LeGuin and Zelazny, and only ever heard of G.K. Chesterton after I graduated college. I’ve gone out of my way to collect books by canonical authors in order to catch up – what I call “doing the diligence” – which yields a mixed bag of results. LeGuin and Zelazny amaze me, but if I never read another Asimov short story that’s a thin fictional veil over a science lesson, I’ll be fine.

Nope.
My troubles are compounded by interests in literary fiction, which has its own far broader canons around the world. The many years I spent reading Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and various translations of The Divine Comedy seem to be the same time others were getting familiar with The Sword of Shannara (only read the first one and can’t remember it, sorry). And then there are all those superhero comics that ate up my adolescence, though they seem to be more useful now that Marvel films are dominating the earth. Don’t get me started on Beta Ray Bill.

Nor have I have I given up my other loves. I’ll get to A Canticle for Liebowitz, but I’m probably going to read Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel first. So maybe I’ll always be behind, but that’s not always bad.

I own it, but...
As frustrating as it can be to listen to geniuses dissect apparently great works I’ve never heard of, this slower pace has also yielded great pleasures. I’m not sure I would have appreciated the works of Shirley Jackson as a teenager, though having started reading her a few years ago with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, she is now one of the most inspiring authors in my life. So there’s the frustration of finding two more important books for every one I knock down, this hydra of literacy, but there is also the wonder of finding true masterpieces vetted by decades of readership.

It may just be the way I look at things, but I am far happier to have read Lord of Light late than never at all. No one I know of writes this way today, and as far as I’ve read, no one else used to, not even Zelazny.

If you’re curious, the next authors I intend to do the diligence on are Lois McMaster Bujold and Samuel Delany. I’m told I’ll love Nova. The two keep getting postponed because I’ve taken such a long detour through Jo Walton, even though she so strongly recommends both of them.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Three Positive Things in Three Days, and Cheating

This wasn't my best week. Starting Monday and hitting hard Tuesday, my body started rejecting my new medication. I've only gotten some clarity in the last day or so, and am struggling for productivity. I see the doctor for the next consult on Thursday.


In related news, Ross Dillon cheated recently. He was tagged in a Facebook game to post "three positive things for three days," and he posted nine all at once. He's a man after my own heart.

I read his list minutes after finishing a short story and was quite exhausted. I played along. No reason not to be positive here for the span of nine items.



1. Marathoning the first season of Lost.

2. A writer I respect saying he was compelled to stay up late to read to the end of a story he beta read for me.
3. Ice cream cakes.

4. Homemade ice cream cake substitutes.
5. Grilling hamburgers.
6. People who smile when the rain reaches them.
7. Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead comic.
8. Telltale's The Walking Dead game.
9. Hearing the version of the ending theme of Naoki Urasawa's Monster, an instrumental song which always creeeped me out, and finding the lyrics inspirational and reassuring. 


I confess just listening to For The Love of Life cold won't have the same effect.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The ideas we discard are not wasted

I've had this short story idea for over a month and have been gathering good lines, ideas and character moments. Today I finally had the strength to begin writing it. Five scenes in I realized two thirds of my existing material won't make it into the story. It wasn't a waste - it was a cocoon from which the fiction is emerging.

In related news: I'm writing again. I've written more in the last two weeks than in the previous two months. God willing, this short will be out to a market by the end of the month, and by then we'll be off to the races.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Readercon Wrap Up

I wanted to do a Readercon post earlier but was wiped from my trip. It was a miracle I didn't fall asleep as soon as I plopped into the car, but I didn't. The convention was a wonderful success and I'm glad to report my health held up nearly the entire time. The new medication seems to be taking to my system. The ability to think through the pain and enjoy so much good company made this feel like another world from the last two months.

If you're in the New England area, I strongly recommend Readercon. It's an excellent small-scale convention with a fiction focus that attracts an impressive number of accomplished and excellent panelists. Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear are regulars though had to miss this year; this year saw the premiere of Max Gladstone. There was at least one rep from Crossed Genres and a significant presence of Strange Horizons folk, as well as Tor's Ellen Datlow. It was easy to bump into Kameron Hurley and Peter Straub in the lobby and simply chat with them. You don't get that kind of access and informality with such guests at most cons.

It also led to many fine panels, my favorite being back-to-back discussions of Magic: "Difference Between Magic and Science" and "When the Magic Returns," which contrasted magic and science, and then explored narratives of magic brought into the modern world. Lev Grossman and Max Gladstone were on both line-ups as their incomparably erudite selves, digging into the differences in how we experience our world and expect the magical. Even the greatest technology can feel clunky and exclusionary, whereas magic, with its precious commodity of being fictional, can meet a spiritual need the real world can't.

Julia Sidorova was the most impressive of anyone here for me, a Russian writer positing that technologies like a cell phone are "a science experiment anyone can perform," unifying us as experimenters, and soon openly disagreeing with the guest of honor about our place in evolution. Can you imagine the intelligence and confidence it takes to argue with a guest of honor about the nature of the universe in front of a crowd in a second language? Her approach to science has me hunting for her debut novel.

But the main draw of Readercon was face-time with friends. I skipped several panels simply to hang out in the bar with authors and Viable Paradise graduates, and when I could get up early enough, spent time in the lobby chatting with con-goers. It was a completely different experience from last year's Readercon where I knew few people; knowing folks enables conversations that rapidly expand into clusters. The sad point of this is when other con-goers linger nearby, looking and listening, but can't jump the social hurdle into joining. I know I'm awful at inserting myself into other people's conversations, and you never want to be intrusive. When I could, I'd reach out to such folks. As con-communities, I'm still looking for ways to systematically open us up to more low-key exchanges. Otakon, with its younger demo and enormous attendance, seems more natural at this.

And seeing friends after the crap of the last two months was worth every penny and midnight muscle spasm attack. Mostly I fraternized with Viable Paradise graduates, the first time I've seen several of them since the workshop itself. David Twiddy even organized a massive dinner for professors and grads on Saturday. What a mensch. Events like those enabled my personal highlights, as there's nothing better than getting smart people you like to double over laughing. Jokes about Christ Chex and dinosaur fellatio... well, clearly some of the old me is still around.

There are some sweet photos of highlights, like catching one of my writing mentors in the middle of a magic trick, but this laptop doesn't have an SD card reader. So perhaps another time. For now, I've got to catch up on sleep.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

ReaderCon 2014

A short update this evening: despite my health, I will be at Readercon.

It feels like my system is responding to the new medication. I've already written more in the last three days than in the last month, and I was actually able to do some chores tonight.

Kids: when you get old, you'll feel pride in chores. Sorry.

This means I'm good to go to my first convention since February. Readercon is a lovely little lit-focused SF/F convention in Burlington, MA. No, not Vermont. Burlington, Massachusetts. Yes, my friends were confused by it too.

It attracts a wonderful collection of authors. While I'm bummed to see Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch will be absent, Max Gladstone is making what I think is his first appearance. I just finished his Three Parts Dead, which is quite fun and I'd love to pick his brain about it.

So, I'm packing and hope to see people there.I may be scarce at the evening parties, but I'll be as social as I can. Feel free to say hello. If my health is terrible, I'll apologize and excuse myself. Allegedly, I'm very friendly at these sorts of things.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Purgatory of Illness (and Jokes)


This picture will make more sense
by the end of the essay.

We weren’t sure what was wrong, but this week doctors believed either my body was rejecting all of my medication or I’d had a nervous breakdown. Even if you know nothing about my condition, we can all agree that if you can’t tell which of those two things is wrong, you’re in deep.

If you know nothing of my condition, it’s possibly because I scarcely write about it. It’s never appeared in my fiction, rather drawing me to sympathy and study of the illnesses and disabilities of others. But ever since I was thirteen and the recipient of some radical medical malpractice, I have had a crap immune system and have been in constant pain in every part of my body. Most recently, it began taking my hearing and my ability to focus thought.

If you didn’t know that every time we’ve ever talked I’ve secretly been in pain, it’s because I’ve been conditioning myself since puberty to manage the load. Two months ago, when I could no longer speak in coherent sentences, and when walking to the mailbox became too much of an ordeal for me to imagine (literally: I could no longer think straight enough to envision the trip), pain management was all I had left. Empathy seemed to evaporate from my mind. Beneath compassion, humor and creativity, all I had was the ability to not lose my grip on my body.

Today, I’m proud of that. I’m proud of having held onto that much when my entire nervous system turned against me.

At the time, I had no idea what was going on and felt guilty for bothering so many people about it. This is why The Bathroom Monologues have been particularly quiet for the last two months. I’ve completed no piece of fiction in the entire period; editing a novel became excruciating in ways I wish upon none of you. That little review of X-Men: Days of Future Past went up a week late because it took me an entire week to type that many coherent sentences.

If you’ve made it through those five paragraphs, then please bear with me for this: I don’t want you to apologize for my pain. Some of the worst parts of the last two months have been people frowning and trying to commiserate with me. All it does it perpetuate mood and fatalism.

Instead, join me in regarding the few instances of hope people gave me by being ridiculous. The first time it felt like anything could improve was walking through a Wal-Mart (of all places on earth). Out of the freezer section came a cart, pushed by a teenaged girl in huge, furry boots. Sitting inside the wire cart (not on the baby seat, but lounging inside the food carriage) was another teenaged girl in huge, furry boots, with as demure a grin as grins can allow within their city limits. They were half-grown adults enjoying something ridiculous, chatting about what to put on their Eggos.

I’m pretty that the next time I smiled was in learning someone had the gall to name their band “The Style Council.” Or it was a reclusive friend linking me to the strangest Vines he’d found that month.

Of everyone, my mother was the most worried for me. It’s something moms excel at, isn’t it? Some days she’d invite me out, I think just to give me a change of scenery. Funny to think asking someone to drop off the recycling is altruistic, yet in my easily overwhelmed state, I showed up to the car half an hour late. I was sure she’d be furious, and was prepared to apologize into her frustrations.

Instead she had found a rope swing and was happily spinning around a tree in the yard. She didn’t even hear me come out. She reminded me what a damned good role model is.

This is what I need, and in bulk. Don’t wish me well, and don’t put on grave tones, and don’t say the hardest part is over or is yet to come. I’ll take your prayers (and thank you, Father Andre and David Twiddy – that really did mean something to me), but I’ll also be glad to see you decorating this world with quirks. It reminds me of my purpose.
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