clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Amid the Ruins of Our Own Making

At left, an image of Whitby Abbey, ruins, as photographed by Juliet220 and hosted on wikicommons. This meets the criteria of a quality image.

I'm writing tonight. I've notes all over my desk that I've amassed solving a plot hole (Add Bob back at the cabin , give him a shotgun, put Lucious in a shipping container and find out what Diazepam tastes like).

The abbey was destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII after his little falling out with the Pope.

Lesson: getting in the way can be a problem. More than that, your characters don't know when they are in the way of trouble.

I've off to write. Darkness won't last all night.

You know what I mean.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Night Writing, Morning Edits

At left, some of my working area.

It's a busy time. I'm walking back through my USCG Navigation Rules,  my Chapman Piloting and Seamanship, and now a replacement copy of Basic Coastal Navigation as my old copy got away from me. My Annapolis Book of Seamanship is downstairs by my bed.

I'm planning on sitting my navigation exam in December and it has been ... er ... several years since I had to pass such a course.

So, a little bit each day.

Which is where we are tonight.

I'm in composing mode. I have several tools to share that help with this task.

Toggl ( here ) is a free time tracking app that is free, has a mobile app component for all you app folks, and is completely free form. You pick the category,  hit start, and time "butt in chair" effort. If you are a words-per-day sort of person this isn't something you need.

After a good decade back in the chair, I find I do better not focusing on the stress-laden w-p-d count. I use a time-on-task count. It worked in school ( you spend three hours a day on statistical thermodynamics and your grades will go up markedly in that arcane subject as well).

While we're on it, let's talk composition and words.

I use Scrivener. ( here ) I love it. It has scene/chapter/project word count totals. It produces a dozen formats. It integrates with Dropbox if you should like (I just do a manual drag to my local Dropbox folder after a writing session and select an option to allow new-to-overwrite-old on copy. Syncing happens quickly and ... cloud backup achieved! Good enough.).

I format my Scrivener output in a custom wash with a couple of post-production Powershell scripts added in and I'm ready for a couple of my favorite LaTeX typesetting production formats. ( LaTeX here ).

I compose into the evening. I try and keep from working too late because, like you, I have a day gig.  That's important.

I edit in the morning with coffee in hand. I read aloud in my library and fix the immediate issues from the prior session. Sometimes I make notes and set the new material aside for an "immediate revision" session in the evening after a little thought.

I stick with this process until I am in a hole from which there is no escape. There aren't many of those anymore because I am willing to cast aside large volumes of ineffectual text if the blind rush of impulse has lead to .... dull.

Time discipline and stability in the mechanics of the writing process serve me well to keep my creative energy "on the page" and not in tampering with what the hell I'm trying to do: write.

I have no idea if this works for other people. I think a lot of you might be like that to: we have some idea of what works for us sometimes but we don't understand why and we don't understand what other writers do.

I did know one fellow who wrote in pencil starting each session with three sharpened #2 wooded beasties. He wrote until the pencils were dull enough that his longhand -- he wrote quite small -- was filled by the large flat loops of his script.

I'm an ink fellow for longhand because ink's contrast shows better in poor light.

As to why this process of mine and these lovely tools will from time to time fail me and I will go weeks without working on a single composition, I don't know. Sometimes I can no longer bear to sit at my desk and face my own writing for one minute more.

I know that over time, I'll come back to it.

I keep very good notes now so I can pick things up quicker the next time around if a spell of "absent heart" strikes me.

Keep the ink flowing. Night when everyone is in bed and morning before they are up makes for some productive volume if one is manic enough to keep the interest in place.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Tides of Ink

At left, Hemingway in a motor launch, 1931. Courtesy the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Public domain image.

I didn't have a good picture of a writer sailing. This image is what I could find without much work involved.

I work on project A. I have ideas for project B.

Somehow, that just seems wrong. If you had ideas for project B and spoke to me about them, I'd understand you to be sabotaging my effort. Got it.

When I have ideas about project B in the middle of project A, it is merely the process of an undisciplined mind moving on in the normal half-complete state I seem to live my life.

It is if I depart on a boat and am never to reach my destination.

I've solved this problem this time.

I've got a secret tool. It's called a map.

I'm following it.

Don't stray too far from the path. There are bears in the woods and sharks in the waters.

I haven't much else witty to say tonight. I have to write a scene where I tell a new widow that she is one.

See, I have a map.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


Public domain image from wikicommons at left. These are Bulgarian sentries in the snow in 1913. They're having a blast.

The military has a phrase for the middle third of our composition process: "Embrace the suck."

Life is unfair and unpleasant and there are times -- especially in the military --when one must just "do" rather than "desire to do." So the story goes, anyway. I only know what I read.

We writers uniformly are excited when we start a long-form project. 

We've plots and twists and plotty-twists and diet Mountain Dew or a recharged Starbucks card. We've often only a germ of an idea that we know will become whole through those tenuous mind-holds we create as our prose crosses the page.

One material element, then another, then another.

In the process, our freshly sharpened pencils dull one by one and we've decided that our opus consists of a loosely formed collection of plot holes more or less occupying a related set of electrons on our computer's hard drive.

We know that first drafts of anything are messy (except those of the authors who lie about their first drafts sucking -- those are flow-of-consciousness "gems" which just come into being in a wonderful songbird accompanied peal of joy).  For we normal writers, our first drafts suck.

Somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of the way through, we see more holes and flaws and should-have-been bits than we can stand. It is here that many of the unfinished Great American Novels end.

Embrace the suck.

Anything can be fixed with the exception of the untold tale. Unfinished means nothing. Unfinished does not exist.

You had an idea. It didn't work. Fine. Drive on because the only chance of making it work is to finish the story. 

And then what happens?

Steve Almond says writing is decision making.  

I say the most important decision is the one where we decide to write. Not discuss. Not blog. Not tweet. Write.. 

I'm watching a friend struggle with her prose. She's hiding from her pen. She's complaining about it.  She isn't embracing the suck. She has lots of life suck going on. Surprise. She's not alone.

She doesn't read this blog.

I don't offer unsolicited advice to fellow writers. I watch them thrash in silence as fish on a dock with their life motivation slipping away as they wet the boards with the silhouette of  brief, damp, desperate life.

 I turn back. I embrace the suck. My ink only runs in my own veins.

My ass hurts. My toes are cold. My fingers cramp. My illusion of self-worth crumbles as I think I've no business picking up a pen. 

I think of drinking instead. I think of sitting on the deck, lighting a pipe, and reading from my favorite authors.

I remember they too had to embrace the suck. I sigh. I stretch. I spill some ink upon the page declaring myself talentless and my story trite and unimaginative.

I'll fix it on the next draft just as my heroes have done, after I finish this draft.

Just as you should.

Embrace the suck. Everyone whose fiction you read had to give the suck a big unpleasant hug at some time in the process.   

This time it is our turn. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Moving Friends

At left, public domain image from wikicommons. Early moving truck, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Not the best day to move. Always seems like snow and rain when the deed is required.

I have a friend moving "back" to Seattle after seventeen years of being here in nearby Ann Arbor. It's a work thing and he's being recalled to Seattle to the headquarters of his firm. He's spent his whole career with one company and now is joining the senior executive ranks upon returning home.

I'm going to miss him. It is how life is. Seattle is too far to expect to see him with any frequency and his involvement in the past-times I have excited in him are too tenuous to remain for long without frequent re-enforcement.

We'll see.

I'm thinking tonight of the unexpected loss of an ally and the effect on a protagonist.

In the middle of our story's turmoil when we have the serial encounters with conflict and obstacles, how often do we think of the loss of ally as a driving factor in the transformation of our character?

I know the bit about taking away all of a character's friends then in the next chapter, shooting his dog.

I think back to Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and I can remember the first time I read the story thinking that here -- in this part -- Smiley considers everyone he knows as a suspect. I remember the bottom dropping out of my stomach as I recognized here was a protagonist reduced to being alone by the process of his own reasoning.

I'm not able to execute so deft a turn; but, I can have associates arrested, or subject to a inconvenient demise, or just murdered. maybe having them isolated by the turn of their own mind isn't necessary for my purpose.

Would my protagonist continue without his trusted friend? Would he solider on filling the void from elsewhere in the cast? Would a former antagonist now become a friend?

I am not like my friend. He is placid and lacks a competitive nature. It makes him good for roles where the gentle hand of compromise is required through rapport and pacification.

I like to win.

At the moment, I am losing.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Harvey, Harvey, Harvey

At left, the mess that is my desktop.

I have a bill from the state for car tags because my state does it on one's birthday.

I've a trade magazine from the fly fishing industry to get through (No, I'm not "really" in the industry. My dollars are.) I've flies to tie - design in the background of the transcription palette. 

Also, I have to pass basic seamanship again. Yea. Again. Like, thirty-odd years on. I don't have the certification I need for the boat I want to lease and so insurance demands documentation.. That's the flag for India which means I am turning to port absent any other signal.

This has been an ugly week in the entertainment industry. I'm going to let the events lie where they may and take a literary approach: the fallen hero.

Studio mogul. Bum. It took what, forty-eight hours? Maybe seventy-two.

I've got some things I need to happen in the current work in progress. It occurred to me a fallen hero, a mogul, a fellow of influence, wealth, and accomplishment might be the exact sort of supplemental character I need to make some improbable events transpire.

I have a copy of Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces stuck on the arm of my reading chair right now.

The fall. The fall.

The devil is a most attractive character. Nobody gives a shit about the saints.

Off to the ink.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Writer as Islander

At left, Bogoslof Island in the Aleutians.  Image hosted on wikicommons as taken by U.S. Geologic Survey: T.Keith.

Pretty nice day.

I'd ask about deserted island book lists and deserted island foods and ...

Writers are themselves on a deserted island.

With the ink, there is no counsel beyond our own. We tell ourselves the story and then -- with luck -- receive notes on the polish and clarification necessary from our chosen advance readers.

We are not adrift; but, we are alone.

I rather like that aspect.

My composition style sees the story unfold as cinematic scenes before me.

Today, I have a fellow who is responsible for solving a murder but who is not a detective by trade standing in running shorts and a T-shirt near a corpse. I know her wears a Cubs T-shirt. That isn't germane to the tale but I see it. I also see the mimosa in his hand. Hey, have your on-scene fellow drink cold coffee if you want. My guy drinks a mimosa from fresh squeezed.

I occasionally remember the Meeting of Minds television series from the late 70's (in my case) hosted by Steve Allen on PBS. They'd run it during pledge time which oddly found me alone eating frozen pizza on more than one occasion. I'm not at all sure why that happened.

Anyway, there would be a cast of historical figures -- say Abe Lincoln and Kublai Khan -- around a table with the host discussing some issue or another. Hard to remember what they discussed but it was very much a talking-heads sort of affair.

I sometimes think of writers placed on a deserted island and the game they play to pass the nights is "storytime." They each tell stories a bit like Homer might have while sitting around the fire and eating the last of the day's catch of lobster or crab or -- ick -- seal.

I'd want to see Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Stanislaw Lem, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Maybe Jim Harrison. Certainly Jim if we could fish.

I'd like Hemingway there too; but, we'd fight.

No man is an island?

No for all time, no.

With pen in hand? Then, I must decline to concur.

I'll probably be exiled for that statement. Who would know?

Monday, October 2, 2017

Uncomfortable Concordance

At left, image of the Unisphere from the 1964 World's Fair as captured by Doug Coldwell and allowed for fair use here for just the attribution. Image hosted on wikicommons.

As writers of crime, mayhem, murder, and worse we face some scrutiny by friends and family when bad things happen in real life.

The world intrudes.

How do we handle this?

Senseless killing. What do we say?

For my part, I answer that all killing is senseless but that it is a core component of the human condition and has been throughout my life. Thus, I include this aspect -- unfair it may be -- in my writing.

No, I don't believe that my words propagate more violence. The propagation of violence was doing quite well before I picked up a pen. Cambodia, for example. Khmer Rouge?  Brutal, cruel, and had nothing to do with my writing.

Bad things happen. Sometimes those bad things are murders. I'm interested in the human response to the inhuman. I could write about aliens, or I can write about the intolerable cruelty humans inflict on humans.

Cruelty and sudden loss while regrettable are regular facts of our existence. In other parts of the world. they're even more common. Here, they're sensational as a result of the uncommon.

I've no respect for amateurs in the business of mass murder. That's perhaps a singular perspective.

Best we just don't tell friends and family our topics of choice.

Works better in the long run.

After all, a lie of omission is just child's play to a fiction writer.

We should always omit our topics unless they're fluffy bunnies. Happy, fluffy bunnies.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

I Know Them for Their Dogs

Peepe allows us to use the image of a Foxhound in the woods as hosted on wikicommons. Thanks, Peepe. Nice gesture to make this public domain.

I don't know my neighbors' names. I wave. Sometimes I smile (I forget this gesture frequently).  I say "hi" if they are in earshot.

I've met several multiple times but I don't know their names. I know their dogs.

This house is home to Ruger the Labrador. Jesse (Spaniel) and Roxy (portly lab)  live at the house that needs a large dumpster in the driveway for a week.

The French Bulldog (Babs) doesn't like anyone and so we don't stop to sniff if she is out.

Heisman is the shepherd that lives next door. I don't know his owners' name either.

I bring this up because I read a piece by an especially gregarious and extroverted writer this week. "Meet lots of people" and "avoid stereotypes" were tropes of the article.

I'd say: write.

Stereotypes are valid first-order approximations that are easy for a reader to grab until your more subtle details of construction are revealed. Southerners -- many -- do speak slowly. It frustrates some of us. Nothing wrong with using that fact in the introduction of detective Roy Summers from Waycross, GA. [ Waycross sits near the Okefenokee swamp: a great place to get rid of bodies in case you're hunting such a site.]

Dogs that growl sometimes bite. I'm not surprised if they do. If it enhances the story to have the dog not bite but have a chronic case of  crossed-signals, then use that fact. Else, have the animal bite someone. Your choice.

I've met lots of people. Enough people, I think. I can make my own and they won't resemble in detail anyone you've met because that's how I want my characters: uncommon.

I don't want the lady in line at the grocery store in my book because people still writing checks -- and still waiting until they get to the check-out to begin doing so -- are not especially interesting to me. Unless I have a stray bullet in a story.  I might have her be a victim then. Maybe.

For some, writing is a task of introspective world creation complete with action, reaction, sophist logic or even illogical reasoning on the part of characters.

In first grade, we'd already learned to lie. By high school, we did it well. So?  You don't need more models for your string of human templates. Cut them up and put them back together. You'll do fine.

Fiction is a lie.

Shhh. I won't tell if you don't.

The dogs know all and I know their names.