Experienced

Jimi Hendrix with Are you Experienced from Rock Without Rules on Vimeo.

So one of my latest assignments for the Current Day Job is bookkeeping duties. Basically being trained on prepping the registers, balancing the safe, and other money-related things. I definitely have experience in this from my last years at HMV, being left in charge of opening/closing, balancing, depositing and all that fun stuff, so I’d let them know this when I was interviewed. I figured it would give me an extra in when they hired me.

I’ve been at the new place for a bit over two months, and I’ve already retained all my old retail and warehouse job experience into this new one, making everything easy and fun. I’ve already got multiple compliments on my bagging skills, and it’s not just because I do my own when I’m doing the shopping — my style is very much like how I used to build my pallets back at Yankee Candle, getting as many items into a finite space as I can yet still being safe about it. [It really is a bit like Tetris, and it’s kind of fun to look ahead at the shapes/items and put them together in my head.] And thanks to watching Gardener’s World and all those cooking shows during the pandemic, I’m even having some fun conversations about herbs, plants and ingredients as well.

Reason I bring this up is that in these same last couple of months, it dawned on me that perhaps I don’t nearly use that sort of thing with the characters in my stories as much as I really should. I’d like to think my characters are no longer the one-note self-inserts of yore, but after so many years being in an enclosed office setting with the same couple dozen people, I’d kind of lost touch with what other people were like. [Mind you, I don’t use social media for this sort of thing too often, for many and obvious reasons.]

What kind of experience do I have with people? I mean, in real life? I have a lot, it’s just that I’ve kind of lost touch with it for the last decade and a half. The Current Day Job has definitely changed that. I meet regulars, but I also meet the tourists, the late-nighters, the teens, the business people, the homeless, the well-off, and everyone else. And I’m really enjoying that sort of thing. Like I said recently, it’s reminding me that there’s a world outside. A world that’s not on Facebook or Twitter, a world that’s not crunching numbers, a world that’s not trying to save or ruin things. Just…people out there.

And it feels really great to experience that again.

When movies make me rethink my writing

Image courtesy of Everything Everywhere All at Once

First of all: the new Michelle Yeoh movie, Everything Everywhere All at Once is coming out in wide release this coming Friday, and I recommend you go see it. It’s absolutely amazing, hilarious, and maybe more than a bit WTF did I just watch, but it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a while. It’s very hard to describe what it’s about other than that Yeoh’s character is a hard-working and utterly stressed out mom just trying to keep things from falling apart…and things do start falling apart, just not how you’d expect. Just…trust me and go see it.

So. What I meant to say here is that every now and again I’ll see a movie that makes me rethink my own work, whether it’s the style, or the way it unfolds. Often times its unique way of telling a story will inspire me to see my WIPs from a different angle. And, most of all, there are certain films like the above where I can “see the math of it” (as I like to say) — as a writer, I’m intrigued and often blown away by how the filmmakers have used different details, shots, edits, formats, and maybe even colors or angles, to tell the story in a specific way. They’ve allowed me to see how all the different threads of the plot, visuals and dialogue weave together to make a wonderful tapestry. Not every film does that to such a conscious degree, but when they do, those are the ones that have always made me want to run straight home, fire up Word and start writing my own.

When we left the screening of Everything Everywhere there were two things that stuck in my mind: one, I totally want to see this again to pick up everything I missed, and two, I totally want to see this again so I can study it. [Three, if you want to include I love the fact that I just spent half the movie laughing and the other half shaking my head in amused bafflement.] This film was so original and clever with its unraveling of cinematic and literary expectations that you almost don’t notice that it re-ravels them back together in an altogether new and unexpected way.

There aren’t too many films and filmmakers that will achieve that sort of unique creation that will resonate that deeply with me. There are a few anime directors that have done that — Satoshi Kon and Makoto Shinkai are but two — but American filmmakers? Not that many will make that kind of film that will just hit me like that.

And yes, I did in fact work on Theadia after we got home. Heh.

Autumnal

A and I were walking up to the Clement Street Farmer’s Market yesterday and she’d noted that the weather felt quite autumnal: clear, bright, and cold. Of course, our weather here in the Richmond District rarely gets truly autumnal. Depending on the fronts coming in, some days it’ll be clear and chilly, other days it’ll be forever overcast and damp.

I still miss autumns in New England, to tell the truth. I miss the chilly mornings driving into work with a large coffee to warm me up. I miss the back roads canopied with yellow, orange and red. I miss the quiet whispers of wind through the trees, helping the leaves fall.

These are the kinds of things I like peppering into my novels. In My Blue World‘s universe is New England-y, with several moments taking place in leaf-strewn woods, apple orchards and hilltop cabins at the start of the season. Meet the Lidwells! has the kids writing songs inspired by New England seasons. Diwa & Kaffi also sees the change of seasons as a passage of time and life. And even Queen Ophelia gets to experience weather changes as well. It’s my way of inserting some personal memories of autumnal moments. And I’m sure I’ll keep doing it with future stories as well.

Until the End of the World

Source: Until the End of the World, directed by Wim Wenders

I remember going to see this movie back when it came out in 1991, when it played briefly at Coolidge Corner theater in Brookline, just a short-ish trip on the T from Charlesgate dorm near Kenmore Square. I remember it being a long-ish movie — the US version was apparently two and a half hours — but for some reason I also seem to remember somehow seeing the European cut, which is closer to three hours. It’s visually gorgeous, filmed in eleven different countries.

The director’s cut, however, is closer to five hours, and I sat through it all this past weekend during our flight back from New England. And I enjoyed every single minute.

It’s one of my all-time favorite movies, but I can totally understand why others might question my sanity, as it’s not a movie for everyone’s tastes. From the beginning it has a slow and deliberate pace — not a glacial one, which quite a few European art films tend to suffer from, but a novel one. I say ‘novel’ because that’s what it feels like: reading a novel, playing it out on the screen. It takes place in the final days of 1999 when a nuclear-powered satellite is spinning out of control and threatening to crash somewhere on the planet’s surface. But the story is not about the satellite; that’s just the framework of the more personal stories that unfold. There’s Clare, a young and emotionally lost French woman trying to find meaning and stability in her own life; there’s Sam, an American on the run from the government after stealing top secret hardware; there’s Eugene, Clare’s ex and a writer who still loves her; there’s Henry, Sam’s scientist father who focuses more on his projects than his son. And there are even more secondary and tertiary characters who also have their own storylines. It’s about dreams, love, loss, and hope.

It’s kind of hard to explain everything that goes on with this story, though not because it’s confusing or convoluted; it’s more that what we think is the story is only the surface of a much deeper and more important one that involves every single person on the screen. It goes in quite a few unexpected directions but does so deliberately and always for a reason.

I was first drawn to the movie due to its fantastic soundtrack featuring numerous well-known bands of the early 90s performing songs that, on the request of director Wim Wenders, were to evoke what each band would sound like at the other end of the decade. It features songs by Depeche Mode, U2, Can, Lou Reed, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, REM, Elvis Costello, and more. The soundtrack alone is worth picking up, even if you’re not interested in the film!

I mention the movie here on my writing blog, not just because I’d sat through the marathon five-hour director’s cut (which, to Wenders’ credit, manages not to drag at all), but because one of the reasons it’s my favorite movies is because it was an extremely important influence on my writing. From this movie I learned pacing; I learned that not every story needs to be going at a tangible constant speed, nor does it even have to hit high and low points at specific times within the story. This is a slow-burner that starts off calm and introduces new plot points at a leisurely pace, until we get to a point where we suddenly realize we’ve been going at a pretty damn good clip for the last hour or so. It’s a perfect example of how pacing can help tell the story by way of playing with our emotions and expectations.

Until the End of the World has just been released as a remastered Criterion dvd, and I highly suggest watching it if you have a full weekend afternoon.

Breaking Past the Barriers

Source: Hisone to Masotan (aka Dragon Pilot)

Oh hey! I’m back again. Sorry about the delay. So what’s been going on in the writing world for me lately, anyway?

Glad you asked! Because I’d been getting rather annoyed with myself because nothing was going on. I mean, I have been doing my daily words for the most part, but I really wasn’t getting anywhere with it. It’s all fine that I was using this time to write something just out of necessity — in this case, a few holiday-themed experiments in the Mendaihu Universe (which I may or may not expand on at some point) and quite a few outtakes for an as-yet-unnamed college campus story set in the Diwa & Kaffi universe. I even played around a bit with a few older ideas…but nothing seemed to be sticking. I was either getting bored with it, or there really was no story there to begin with.

To put it bluntly: I’m itching to start a new project. And none of these outtakes were calling out to me.

That is, until I decided to try a different approach: one day last week, I wrote out a few detailed paragraphs of various story tropes that I’ve positively gravitated towards, both past and present. Nothing specific, just working out what kind of stories resonate with me at this time. In the process, I let my imagination go wild: how would I go about writing these stories, anyway? Would I be able to expand on this, make it a novel or some other format? Not that I was about to write one then and there — this was just to expand my mind a bit. This is exactly how I’d approached my last three novels, and the process worked pretty damn well.

In all honesty, this was EXACTLY what I’d needed to do. Because now I have a few Possible New Projects worth looking into. Again, I’m not going to look at these as Big Epic Undertakings… I’m just going to let them evolve.

And hopefully something new and exciting will come out of it.

Looking for fresh inspiration

Source: Read Or Die

I’ve been having this itch to do a major book purge. I mean, I’ve done quite a few of these over the years, so this is nothing new. I’ll get rid of books I haven’t read in ages, ones I’m no longer interested in, ones I’ve had for years but never cracked open. Do I need to have these in my life? As I’ve said before, the books are donated to the library and it opens up spaces for new books. Win-win!

I’ve also been having this itch to find new inspiration for my writing. This happens now and again, especially if I spend far too long reading my own stuff for revision purposes — which I’ve been doing the last few months with Diwa & Kaffi. I’ve finished that part of the project, however, so now it’s time for me to read new things again.

But what? My tastes have definitely changed over the years, to the point where I’m not entirely sure what I’m interested in reading at the moment. There’s the manga: the intriguing and unique storytelling such as Nagabe’s Siúil, a Rún: The Girl from the Other Side or Paru Itagaki’s Beastars. There’s the countless music biographies and histories I can catch up on, such as Ed Ward’s The History of Rock and Roll Vol II (the first volume was much more enjoyable than I’d expected it to be), or Prince’s The Beautiful Ones.

But I’m also at a loss when it comes to new titles. I used to find them via Publisher’s Weekly, but I let that subscription lapse some time ago. Sometimes it’s word of mouth, sometimes it’s just a book store browse. But I haven’t really looked for anything completely new in a while now. I’m not sure if I’m just dithering or if I’m just lacking inspiration. Not much is really jumping out at me lately.

I know it’s not the titles themselves or the current trends. I’m just out of the loop and not being very active about my search. I’ve been busy with a lot of things. But now I’m not as busy, and I’m looking for something new.

And I feel like I’m no longer resonating with a lot of my old collection, either. I gave up a lot of titles some time ago, but I think it’s time for another go-round. A KonMari level purging this time: if I’m not going to read it within the next six months, chances are good I won’t be reading it at all. Time for it to go.

It’s time to open up more space on these shelves again. Time to find new inspiration. Time to find new books that will refresh and reinvigorate my creativity.

Time for something new.

On Evolution of Influences

Hey, Trashcan, where you goin’, boy?

As I’d mentioned earlier, I’d done a recent reread of the Bridgetown Trilogy for possible future Book 4 ideas. One of the unexpected things I’d noticed was a distinct difference in influences. These three books are definitely different from Meet the Lidwells and In My Blue World, and not just in mood and length. I knew that going in of course, given its long and rambling history.

One of its early influences was of course Stephen King. This was my ex’s doing, having suggested I read him to understand how to write a large ensemble piece. I read The Stand (the unedited version, which I actually find more enjoyable than the shorter original release) right about the same time the 1994 tv miniseries had been released. It made sense to read this particular story and study it a bit, because I already knew that my idea was going to be about an event that affects scores of people and not just the main characters. [I was big on the Big Idea plot at the time.]

While the trilogy changed and evolved in numerous ways over the two decades I worked on it, so did the influences. I’d started reading more fantasy and science fiction, starting with Holly Lisle and CJ Cherryh and moving then to Kate Elliott. [This was about the time I’d started making my frequent road trips to Toadstool Bookshop in Keene and Barnes & Noble in Leominster, with my book buying habits growing exponentially.] The rewrites in turn became less action-oriented and more character driven. The end result, so many years later, is a mishmash of all those years of influences.

Reading Meet the Lidwells so soon after, on the other hand, was quite the whiplash. That particular novel has one influence only: rock history books, many of which I’d been reading either for pleasure or for Walk in Silence reference and research. I’d also written it to prove to myself that I could write a book less than 100k words! I haven’t reread In My Blue World yet, but I already know that novel’s influences was the YA fantasy I’d been reading. And as I’ve mentioned many times before, Diwa & Kaffi‘s influence is Studio Ghibli. I knew I’d had to severely change my thought processes once I finished the Bridgetown Trilogy project…but seeing the change now, a few years later, it surprised me at how much it had changed.

I suppose in a way this is why I’ve left future possible projects up in the air this year…I’ve caught up with all the ideas I’d been wanting to work on, so once D&K is out and away, it will truly be a clean slate. Which means one thing:

What will influence me next?

Dragon Pilot and thinking outside the box

hisone to masotan
Credit: Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan

I’ve said it many times before, this is one of the biggest reasons I watch anime and read manga:  it forces me to think outside the box.

We’ve recently been watching Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan on Netflix, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.  On the surface it might be one of those fantasy animes that start off cute and fun and eventually turn weird and creepy (one of my favorite storytelling styles, I should add), and there’s enough bonkers humor to sustain multiple episodes, but it’s really wonderfully written.  The short version: four young female air force cadets (and one back-up) are chosen to fly secret planes that are actually ancient dragons hiding under armor that makes them look like fighter jets.  There’s a much darker and stranger story line that kicks in about three episodes in, of course, but on the way there, we’re given the usual shojo silliness: boy trouble, self-doubt and embarrassment, strange and mysterious adults, the power of love, and so on.  I especially enjoy the camaraderie of the special air force team and its leaders, as there’s definitely a Patlabor-esque ‘group of misfits’ vibe going on.  I’m utterly fascinated at how the main plot is unfolding.  While it might just be about the girls training with their dragons, there’s a deeper, more sinister reason for what’s really going on where their lives may be at stake.

It’s precisely this type of story that inspires me to write my own.  I’m always drawn to stories with this kind of creativity, where it pushes me to rethink my own ideas.  The idea of dragons as fighter jets would not have occurred to me at all.  But after watching just the first episode — in fact, a prologue on the first one explains the entire backstory of it to brilliant effect — I was completely sold on the idea.  It was definitely a damn, why didn’t I think of that?? moment for me.

And I know a lot of readers enjoy this kind of creativity as well; after all, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series and Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer stories have the same kind of unique and original styles that have given them huge audiences and Hugo nominations and wins.  It’s taking older tropes and making them new again.

I highly recommend checking this series out…it’s really good fun.

Influences and Impressions

bookworm monterey
The SF room, Book Worm Bookstore, Monterey CA

With the recent passing of genre giant Ursula K Le Guin, and the hundreds of remembrances of fans and fellow authors who were introduced to science fiction and fantasy via her novels and short stories, I got to thinking… I don’t think I’ve ever read any of her work!  I do now own one of her recent short story collections, The Unreal and the Real, that I’ve yet to crack open.  I’m well familiar with the titles, of course.  She’s one of the list of authors I will almost always find in bulk at used book stores.

So what did I read when I was first starting out as a teenage writer?  Well, that’s a good question.  I tried and failed at reading The Lord of the Rings in junior high because I had little patience for it.  I read some YA here and there, a lot of music books and magazines.  Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine was one of the few reading assignments I adored.  My freshman year I devoured Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.  I went through a short spell reading Vonnegut and Asimov.  Some comics.  But that was about it.  I spent more time enthralled by radio and records, as well as visual outlets like MTV, Miami Vice and the various movies we’d rent on the weekends.

And it kind of stayed that way, to be honest.  I read books here and there, but not nearly as voraciously as I do now.  I went through a Stephen King spell in the early 90s, maybe a few other authors here and there.  Douglas Coupland was probably the only mainstay for me then.  Instead I watched a lot of movies (and anime, whenever I could find it).  It wasn’t until maybe the late 90s, right about the same time that I started taking my writing a hell of a lot more seriously, that I decided that maybe I should start reading more, especially in my genre.

Occasionally I’d head to a book store and pick up one or two paperbacks.  By 2000 (right about the time I switched jobs and started the trilogy), my visits to Barnes & Noble and other book stores were becoming more frequent.  For a good couple of years I’d do a run to Leominster (about 30 miles east of my home town) that started at Newbury Comics for a cd run, and ended with a three-hour browse at the B&N up the road.  That was when I finally started finding my own literary influences; Kate Elliott, CJ Cherryh, Richard Paul Russo, Lyda Morehouse, Anne McCaffrey, and so on.  Interestingly, a lot of female genre writers and not that many male writers.  I looked for writers that jumped out at me, that did something unique that fascinated me in some way.

I didn’t read The Lord of the Rings until around 2007, to be honest.  And I finally read Neuromancer around the same time.  I still don’t think I’ve read any Philip K Dick, Alfred Bester, Harlan Ellison, Brian Aldiss or many of the old-school classics, many of whom had movies made from their books by that time.  Some, but not nearly that many as others.

Still, I’ve found my influences in my own way to get where I am today, and I’m still discovering more.  Haruki Murakami is a big current favorite of mine, for instance.  I’m fascinated by storytelling from different angles and avenues, different cultures and points of view.  Just like my avid movie watching back in the day, it’s all about a story that makes me stop in my tracks and think two things: How the hell did they make that work?, and Okay, I need to get back to my computer RIGHT NOW and start writing!  Whether it’s a movie, a book, a manga or an anime, if it moves me just the right way, I’m hooked and inspired.

STFU

not writing

I came up with a mantra in the spring of 1995 when I realized that if I was going to get any serious writing done, I was going to have to stop making excuses not to.  Or more to the point, I was going to have to stop procrastinating.  I had a lot on my mind that summer…a stagnating long-distance relationship; lots of overdue bills; a really horrible diet of cereal, ice cream, concession stand food, soda, and smokes; jobs that weren’t paying enough for me to actually live on.  It’s quite true that life stress is not conducive to the creative mind. At. All.

But I had the use of my girlfriend’s PC that summer, and a hell of a lot of time on my hands when I wasn’t at my theater job.  I had a few projects milling about in the back of my head.  And I had my radio and my music collection to keep me entertained.  All I needed to do was get myself into the groove somehow.  If I was going to finally jumpstart this writing gig with any seriousness, I was going to have to go all in.  I couldn’t do it half-assed.

Which meant that I had to come up with a daily reminder.  And this reminder was written on two index cards in very large letters — one was posted right above my desk, and the other was next to my bed.  That way I’d see them every single day, whether I wanted to or not.

This is what they said:

Just DO it.  Shut the f*** up and START WRITING ALREADY.

Terse?  Maybe.  But it did the trick.  The only reason for not writing at that time was so I could feel sorry for myself and my pathetic social life and post-college career.  I hated feeling that way, and I hated that I knew I was wasting time feeling that way.  I had to break the cycle somehow.

Even if that meant working on the small, inconsequential stuff like transcribing my writing from the past ten years.  Even if that meant making small notes on scrap pieces of paper while at my job.  The main aim here was to create a daily habit out of it.  I’d worry about results at a later time.  As long as I was doing it and not wishing I was.

*

I’ll be honest, that’s still my writing mantra, twenty-one years later in 2016.  It’s for different reasons, of course.  I say that to myself when I’m having a mean case of the Don’t Wannas, or severely distracting myself online, or whatever.  I still have my moments of self-doubt (what writer doesn’t?) and wonder if the current project I’m on is worth finishing.

Procrastination and self-doubt are still two of my bitterest enemies, and the only way I know how to defeat them is via the same mantra:  just shut the f*** up and DO it.

And you know what?  It still works.