Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: Empire Logic

“Of course we have scientific evidence that tyranny keeps the world safe. Science is based on what? Empirical evidence. And nothing is more empirical than an empire. And as our empire is what began recorded history, all recorded peace and justice has transpired during the empire’s reign. Any decency beforehand is hearsay and unsubstantiated superstition. Do some legislators in the legal or policing branches abuse their power? It’s possible, but also a matter of record. And the record is also a matter of record, revisable, amendable, a matter of conquest, no different from the world. The world to which we bring peace. You’re welcome.”

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: The Infection World

It was the infection that changed the world. Everything was dead for the longest time – no one realized this, because they were all busy being dead. They drifted around stars, and bubbled in seas, and the majority of everyone blinked in and out of existence on idiotic quantum whimsy.

Then something went wrong. The wrong parties rubbed against each other, stray chemicals colluded, and before anyone could vote on the matter, life swam under the sun and clouds. This nightmare immediately began devouring the dead – drinking other chemicals until it reproduced to be fat enough to swallow them. It ate the dead, and when it reached a pathetically small number, it ate itself. They climbed from the water and weren’t even dry before they began killing each other wholesale, and they ate other living things, and they ate dead things they’d killed, and those things that had always been dead became unfashionable, and were thus kicked, tread upon, shat upon, scooped up, shoveled, piled, constructed, burned and exhausted.

In the blink of a cosmic eye, life climbed onto other planets. From shore to shore, from star to star, and there was nothing the dead could do about it. They were muted and petrified while life animated and analyzed. Life immortal? Life in other universes? What mechanics would pry apart the fabric of space, render time’s tail vulnerable to tug upon, and allow them access to everything else.

The dead could do nothing but lie there. They were inert, which meant they were helpless to the colonialism of this monstrosity. If only they could do something to stop life. If only something lurked on the other side of rainbows and invisible spectrums that could undo life. And so the dead did one thing: they prayed, after their fashion, to whatever was beyond the gaps, or whatever wasn’t. Perhaps whatever wasn’t was the answer. They couldn’t know. They were dead.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

What Stories Scared You?

Daguerrotype of Andrew Jackson
What book scared you the worst? And what did it? Was it the voice? Was it a particular scene? Was it the premise of a monster coming after you in your dreams, a killer lurking until you took a shower, or just a hero rendered vulnerable in a way you’d never seen before?

It doesn’t have to be Horror. For some, Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft were the masters. But Brave New World’s vision of the future might have disturbed you more than any story about mummies and werewolves, and Tom Robinson’s situation in To Kill a Mockingbird sent shivers through plenty of people. I’m saving mine for later this month, but I guarantee it’s an unusual pick, even though it's the only book to ever drive me to try to hide under a bed.

With luck, we’ll gather a whole list of unusual ones and share them on All Hallow’s Eve. You have until October 29th to write up a brief explanation of whatever book or short story scared you the worst (or the best), and I’ll post them on the 30th. That way anyone looking for one last scary read in October can hit the library on Halloween with a healthy list.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Goodbye, Grandpa - Scattered Look at a Life

At 12:06 on October 15th, my grandfather passed away. I've been prepared for this for too long, and it's left me with too many thoughts about a man whose life was too much larger than my own.

When my grandmother passed away, I feared I was too sentimental in talking about her. There are many good uses for sentimentality when dealing with death, but I gilded her character, ignoring harmful flaws and major dimensions of who she was. This is not to attack her, or my grandfather, but to recognize the complexity of any given life. The whole package is who now lies dead, not only the good or the saddest or the most popular parts.

Patterns are real and narratives are useful, but they can also oversimplify people, and delude us into thinking life isn’t messy. With your permission, I’d like to share a few things about my grandfather, not in any particular order, since every item is true. You can consider this prose poetry, or meta-non-fiction, or simply the eulogy I’m not going to say on Thursday. Regardless, these are some things I’d like to relay about a man I knew.

-My grandmother forced him onto a diet around when I was born. It grew increasingly strict, and he chaffed for junk food. My first memory of visiting them alone was Grandpa putting a hand on my shoulder, almost hiding from her behind me, even though I was tiny. I remember his voice going cagey as he said, “Well, I have to take John out for pizza.”

-He was one of six boys in an Irish Catholic household. His mother died so early he never knew her, and his father had little time for him. When he came back from World War 2 almost bedridden with malaria, his father told him to, “Quit your bellyaching.”

-He lied about his age to sign up for the marines early. His service put him in the Pacific, where he was issued one rifle. His unit was instructed to decapitate the dead bodies of Japanese soldiers and keep their skulls to protect the barrels of their rifles from rain. He kept the skull after the war, usually hidden in his attic, up at least until ten years ago. Why he did that is a subject of family urban legends.

-He worked with Job Corps on the East Coast of the United States, and helped hundreds of poor black families find work in a tense city. He made some friends during that period who still visited him even in his last year. I never met any of them, but heard amazing things.

-He was never comfortable visiting a Chinese restaurant. I watched his fists clench and eyes dart around the waiters; they made him nervous, giving him flashbacks to combat with Japanese soldiers.

-He held the most exuberant conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses I’ve ever seen. They never came close to converting him, nor did he seem to try on them, yet he always perked up when he saw them coming.

-He and my grandmother helped finance my college education; it wouldn’t have been possible without them. One time, when I needed to get home but Mom was busy, he picked me up, driving from Connecticut, to the college in Vermont, to Mom’s in New York, and then back home to Connecticut. He didn’t seem to mind it at all. During the drive, he lectured me on how fiction was evil, being fundamentally a manipulative lie. When he couldn’t convince me to give up fiction, he said he was certain one day more articulate people would show the world that it was only deception.

-His senility and dementia humbled him in ways that saddened me, even though I’d often been at odds with him before it. One great change was my writing. On no day could he remember what I wrote about, and often he forgot that I wrote novels at all. Yet whenever I mentioned that I was writing, he would encourage me, tell me I deserved to be proud of myself, and say that I seemed very serious about the work. For someone who could remember so little, every few months he’d ask how my book (or “your thing”) was coming along.

-Every single time in my adult life that I told him I loved him, his warmest response was awkwardness. His typical response, even at his most senile, was disdain. He enjoyed affection and sentiment from his wife, daughters and granddaughters, but not from any man I ever recalled. Over a hundred times in the last two years I accidentally ended a phone call with, “Love you, Grandpa,” to which he’d respond with something like, and often exactly, “Uh, well, goodbye.”

-There is an infamous Christmas in my family. It was the winter after my father moved out, and my grandparents made a power play. I was withdrawn from religion and holidays at the time, and made my desire to abstain explicit at multiple points before the day. I simply attempted to sleep in and let the family do what they wanted. My grandparents visited early in the morning with presents, commanding everyone to open them in order, woke me up and urged me into the living room. They told us where to sit, what to do, letting us know they were in charge, and I remember how helpless and uncomfortable my mother looked in the throes of what should have been kindness. I tried to avoid the gift-rituals by making coffee and fetching things for people. When I said I didn’t want anything, my grandfather stormed up to my face, a fist clenched suggestively at his side. I saw his eyes soften with concern when he realized I was taller than him, and the taint of fear that I might win. Before I could say anything to calm him, he circled around me and walked out of the house. I did not talk to him for several years after that.

-After my grandmother died, the family quickly realized he was too senile to live on his own, or even in a private house with live-in care. He was placed in the best nursing home they could find, but I knew he hated it. Readjustment is even harder for people suffering from dementia, and at the funeral one thing I clearly saw he longed for was family contact. The next night I called him, and we chatted for a few minutes. I repeated that for almost every night for the next two years, sometime between 5:30 and 7:30. We did the math last month, and counted around 700 calls – we’d talked more recently than in the rest of my life. It took very little time from my day, and meant unfathomable things to him. At his absolute cognitive worst, he still recognized my voice and, according to anecdotes, would brighten when someone said John was calling later.

-My sister was incredible about visiting him at the nursing home. My visits were fewer, since my distance was greater and health weaker, but I remember my first visit to him vividly. He hadn’t enjoyed the home’s lunch very much, and Mom worried about how to appease him. I put my hand on his shoulder, standing side-by-side with him, and told her, “Well, I have to take Grandpa out for pizza.”

Thank you.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: Like a Silver Bullet?

The official story was that the priest simply lost his mind. While there’s no science to support, it’s long been believed that people are more likely to act violent, to commit crimes, and to go mad at the full of the moon. It’s why “luna” is in our word “lunatic.”

Police arrived to find what the children had described to 911. The priest was dead on their living room floor, near the shattered window. He had wounds on his abdomen consistent with their story that he’d broken in through it. The wounds were graver because he was only wearing the ragged remains of a pair of pants. They were stretched to odd proportions. Forensics found traces of feces, swamp mud and dog or wolf hairs on them, and presumed he had been out in the swamp for a long time before the attack.

The children’s uncle confirmed their story and handed over the revolver that killed him. There were no bullets in the revolver, which was registered to the uncle. The suspect had a single bullet wound, and autopsy retrieved smashed remains of the bullet from his skull. Retrieval was difficult because the bullet was not made from typical armament metals, but rather silver. The uncle said the children had it forged as part of a game for Halloween. Tragic they had to use it. Doubtless the holiday will not have any joy for them.

Their uncle was treated for a concussion and related injuries. He had been thrown through a cabinet, where he dislocated his shoulder and sustained several gruesome diagonal scrapes on his chest. Officers on the scene did not feel the need to photograph them.

On full moons, one of those officers will occasionally wish he photographed the injuries. If you get him drunk, he will paw at his own chest, and if you get him especially drunk, he will explain how much they looked like the claws of a giant paw. But you’ll have to get him especially drunk. Otherwise, the officer will conclude what everyone else did – that the priest simply losing his mind one full moon is the only rational explanation. The poor lunatic didn’t even have a history of mental illness, but it can happen to anyone.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

How I Wrote My Novel - (The Last House in the Sky)

This is a follow-up to the journal of how I wrote The House That Nobody Built. Many people found the day-by-day transparency refreshing or useful, so I'm pulling back the curtain on how I wrote the follow-up novel this year, The Last House in the Sky. I'm still afraid this sort of thing appears self-indulgent. If there’s anything you’d like clarified about the below, please hit me up in the Comments.

The Last House in the Sky was a much choppier trek. I knew it would get interrupted. Production would run into the summer when I had many travels planned, and my grandfather’s health was poor, which might necessitate emergency visits. I was still waiting on beta readers for my previous novel to get back to me, I had a new idea that I loved, and increasingly felt like a vacation was a waste of time. Thus, off I went.

May 21: 2,554 words (counting the outline I made that morning; am deleting bits from outline as they are written)
May 22 4,307 words
May 23 5,624 words
May 24 7,568 words
May 25 9,564 words (this may be the most productive five days I’ve ever had)
May 26 11,429 words
May 27 13,024 words

13,000 words in seven days was about as fast fiction production as I’ve ever had in my adult life. It was exciting, but towards the end of the week I found it very taxing. My syndrome started kicking back around May 25. This got worse daily, and by May 28th, the syndrome pain was much worse than usual and interfered in my ability to focus on anything. Bitterly ironic, then, that I was constantly desiring to exceed my 1,000-word minimum. Perhaps if I just stopped at 1,000 it wouldn’t be as bad.

May 28 14,325 words
May 29 16,413 words
May 30 Decide Wednesdays will resume as the weekly day off

On my first “day off” I found it difficult to shake wanting to write notes and dialogue in the morning, but quickly found enough errands that my whole day was consumed until about 10:00 at night.

May 31 18,000 words
June 1 19,334 words
June 2 21,395 words (high anxiety mid-afternoon; returned on a whim at 9 that night to double the day’s word count; considered leveraging it to take tomorrow off)
June 3 22,522 words
June 4 24,110 words
June 5 26,235 (high anxiety returns, is 4:30 PM before word minimum is hit, lots of shaking; broke, got a pizza, wound up finishing a scene and blew through the word count)
June 6 27,554 (Wednesday, but have company coming this weekend, and at 9:30 that night had nothing pressing to do; banged out a short chapter from the perspective of a minor but funny character, exploring prosthetic tentacles)

June 7 Family and friends visit, no progress
June 8 Family and friends visit, no progress

June 9 Get free at 9:00 that night; write a little, and reorganize the novel into individual chapter .docs so it will be easier to navigate.
June 10 29,608 words
June 11 31,118 words
June 12 32,396 words
June 13 35,377 words
June 14 36,539 words (Ahead of schedule, but skipped the Wednesday off because of previous weekend; agreed if I hit 40,000 words by Saturday, I could take Sunday off)
June 15 38,036 words
June 16 40,099 words
June 17 Sunday - Day off, as planned
June 18 41,728 words
June 19 43,024 words
June 20 Wednesday, typical day off. Also the week when it became apparent my cousin Will was in fatal need of a liver transplant and I began organizing a donor drive online. Used most of my free time on that this day.
June 21 45,075 words (begin hammering out unusually long chapter I’d avoided for a few days)
June 22 46,426 words (hopped to a concurrent, shorter chapter; wrote whole thing in one day; still takes excruciatingly long)
June 23 48,304 (past three days have been very slow processes; today I could not get a flow before 3:00 PM; questioning if this is the first stretch of days where my foggy head and dragging the work out is actually hurting the material, as this period’s stuff doesn’t feel as punchy and the chapter-in-progress is the longest to date; counter-arguments are that a lot happens in the chapter, including setting changes)
June 24 50,016 words
June 25 51,695 words (thought it went well, but found my limbs shaking for hours afterward; neuromuscular syndrome worsening?)

Normally I’d question if I was bound for Writer’s Exhaustion at this point. However, I was two chapters away from the end of an arc in the novel, and expected the last of my test-readers to return her copy of my previous novel by July 1st. Mid-July was the point at which ChiCon7/WorldCon was rumbling their submissions for novel workshops would open, so I wanted a final draft by then. I decided to aim to finish the two chapters, then break from all writing-based work until July 1st, at which point I’d start the final draft of the other novel. It had always been my plan to pause or postpone this work-in-progress, though I felt particular angst giving the characters up just as something tremendous was about to land on them.

Also nervous to see how productivity on the novel works after what would be at least a two-week break, and quite possibly a lot longer given family obligations over the summer. Quite possible that I’d only have a spare week here or there to compose on it.

June 26 52,722 words
June 27 53,963 words Wednesday, allegedly my day off, and I was on the run until 3:00 PM. Came home utterly exhausted. But with only one chapter to go, and it seeming like a fun one, I took a crack at it. Nailed the chapter, finished the existing work, and moved to finishing the previous novel.

This break stunk. It hurt to be away from this book for so long. Many days I wanted to abandon the old nearly-perfected novel to complete a crappy rough draft of this one. Would only get back to it for a few days, though, before Otakon in late July and several more trips for family/business/health.

July 17 57,174 words (was incredibly excited to get back to it today; wrote two full chapters before 5:00)
July 18 59,446 words (another chapter in one sitting; then a second, very short one late that night – have actually finished the entire block of chapters I’d intended to write before Otakon in another week)
July 19 61,507 words (completed a longer chapter midday; have now completed the arc in the novel I’d desired to finish before Otakon in Maryland, which is a week from today)

Notes from self: “I’m not sure why the last three days have been so good. I’ve been overwhelmingly preoccupied with writing the events, the plot points, and most specifically, the little character moments in these chapters, seldom checking word count while intensely aware that I was producing a lot. While I’ve always been immersed in the novel, there’s something unique about this mindset. It is a genuine focus on narrative and character progression rather than getting the words down that you’d think would be easy to achieve, but for whatever reason, has simply not been. It certainly helps that this chunk of chapters is the most dire in the book. Greatly prefer this mindset over the word-count mindset.”

July 20 Impromptu day off; family invaded the house for the weekend. Saw Dark Knight Rises, recorded podcast and spent day helping sister move. With the house overrun and interruptions frequent, I’m falling back on diagramming and setting up how the rest of the book goes rather than writing the scenes; everything after this point is the rush to the climax, which I don’t want interrupted by family or a trip to a convention. Also using this time to apply copious notes for editing to the existing 60,000+ words.
July 21 62,297 – the word count now including outlines for the final 15 chapters
July 22 63,103 words; organized remaining notes once family left; feeling sicker and with family emergencies, decide to cave in and break until I return from Maryland August 3rd. Feeling supremely lazy despite rational thought. This is the summer I signed up for, I say.

After this break, I come back feeling emotionally and mentally exhausted, and it’s harder to pick up the project. Feels reasonable; any time I put down a work it’s a roll of the dice on how the return works. My hope is to hit a certain chapter-benchmark between August 4-14, after which I’m hosting a reunion that will halt any progress for about a week.

August 4 64,117 words (had interim chapter sketch from train ride home; wrote the chapter in one sitting today)
August 5 65,444 (all work on a new chapter; unfinished)
August 6 66,724 (was inspired, skipped to a new chapter, wrote in one sitting)
August 7 67,653 (finished August 5 chapter; sketched some of the next)
August 8 Wednesday – day off to do errands and dig the rain ditch in front of the house
August 9 69,265 (wrote first thousand words early, then broke, then wrote the rest across the afternoon and evening; coming up on plot precipice that might be a good pausing point)
August 10 70,421 words (very shaky health; wrote short chapter from heroine’s perspective; decided to write heroine’s chapters up to the plot threshold, then will break for travel/reunion on the 15th)
August 11 71,446 words (short chapter; set up tomorrow’s)
August 12 73,034 (last heroine chapter completed; shaky or busy all day, wrote it at 2:00 AM)

On August 15th people began arriving for my college reunion. Hosting it, I had little privacy and knew I’d get no writing done. Unfortunately family emergencies cropped up as soon as the reunion ended, sapping my time and energy, and soon I had no free days before ChiCon. Critiquing other manuscripts for the conference and reading up for panels consumed the time I had, along with my brother stopping in out of nowhere. Post-convention, I had publishing offers I had to follow-up on, making the break from the novel stretch through early September.

Being this close to the end of the book was alternately irritating and worrisome – worrisome because I feared I’d lose the passion and threads that had led me to such progress previously.

On September 10th I sent out queries for the first novel. That was the cut-off for excuses in the new book – figuratively and literally. On the evening of the 10h and afternoon of the 11th, I dove back into The Last House in the Sky. Both days were efforts on the same chapter, so I only have the final word count for the 11th.

September 10: 73,034?
September 11 74,962 words
September 12 Syndrome bad, long day of errands, body crashed when returned home; only got up to write at 10:00 at night; no log of word count
September 13 77,070 words (finished two chapters)
September 14 79,071 words (one chapter in one day; shuffled listing of events in remaining climactic chapters)
September 15 81,030 words (one chapter in one day; sets up climax)
September 16 Impromptu day off; personal emergencies
September 17 84,107 words (one big chapter in one day; climactic events rolling)
September 18 85,624 words (most of a chapter over the course of a day, kept falling apart, feeling very ill)

The 18th was a very rough day for my syndrome, and I spent something like eight hours struggling to eke out 1,500 words, and left the chapter with many skeletal bits to fill in. I felt terribly guilt for not finishing it, particularly since company was coming the next day and I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish it immediately. This made me reflect on how shifting from words-per-day to chapters-per-day might affect my satisfaction levels. Will have to work on that.

September 19 Company
September 20 Company
September 21 Company

I think I remember the Sept. 10/11 resumption feeling much harder than the days that followed. Writing on Sept. 22, I know this resumption feels ridiculously hard to get into; by the 23rd, it was much easier. Have memories, but no records, that most resumptions after breaks have been irksome.

September 22 86,265 words (finished the chapter from the 18th and rewrote a few broken sections)
September 23 88,822 words (wrote first post-climax chapter; realized there was one pre-climax chapter had never written, from same perspective as post-climax, so wrote that too)
September 24 91,832 words (two chapters in one day; novel done)

And that’s how the beast was slain. It was awful on the 25th when I had nothing to do. No one wanted me for anything. If they could only have waited until now.
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