Behind the Scenes

Vienna Opera Backstage, Austria
Vienna Opera House pic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Every now and again I think of how fans see their favorite writers or musicians or performers when they’re not center stage with a new project.  I get to thinking, this band has finished their tour, they’ve already released all the singles from their latest album, and they’re out of the limelight.  So what are they doing at that point?

Well, the 80s told us that all the bands were hanging out on the Sunset Strip and getting completely shitfaced and taking an apothecary full of drugs and partying until it was time to start the whole album-tour rollercoaster again.  Or something other ridiculous, overblown stereotype of some sort.

The era of social media shows it differently.  Nowadays, we find that artists are working at their day job or completing freelance projects and selling their own wares at conventions.  Musicians are bringing up a family or helping out a friend at a recording session.  Writers are slogging away, trying to make deadlines and heading out on book tours and conventions.  Any one of them might be taking a breather so they can just be regular non-famous people.

I think about something Paul McCartney once said about the length of time it took for the Beatles to record Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: “Because we were done touring, people in the media were starting to sense that there was too much of a lull, which created a vacuum, so they could bitch about us now. They’d say, ‘Oh, they’ve dried up.'”

I sometimes also think about the time it takes from a writer saying ‘I’m working on a new project’, maybe giving out vague details about it, to the time they tweet ‘YAY!  It’s done!  Off to my agent/editor!’, to the time they announce that it’s being released.  Back in the internet age you were never sure how long it took, especially when some writers like Stephen King could have multiple books and stories out within the span of a year, while other writers might not see publication until a decade after their last release.  Nowadays you can follow your favorite author In Real Time.

I think this might be one of the reasons why some writers are always pleasantly surprised when their book gets a positive response.  They’ve lived with that book for anywhere from six months to a few years, and it’s all their own creation.  They wrote the score, they built the sets, they sang the arias endlessly to get them just right.  Perhaps maybe a few lucky backstage friends got to beta read.  They or their production crew (their agent and/or publisher) may have even done the artwork for the program.  They put it in the hands of their agent, in hopes that someone will be interested.  For all intents and purposes, it’s a one-person show almost all the way to the end.  And when they get there, they’re so immersed in their story that they’re really not entirely sure how the public will react.

It’s one of the most interesting paradoxes in the creative arts; you create something for the public to enjoy, and yet you’re never completely certain if you’ve done it right until they see it.  But if you’re lucky, you have, and all that work will have been worth it.

Despite the distractions

naruto determined
I know just how you feel, Naruto.

The Day Job has been kicking my ass these last few weeks.  The fallout from a new system roll-out that suffered a few growing pains, a ridiculously large workload, and everything in between.  On the one hand, it all makes the day go by ridiculously quickly, but on the other hand, it leaves me hardly any breathing room.  Last week’s vacation was a short respite from that, but alas, I’m still getting my butt handed to me at the end of the day.

Over the last few days I’ve been tempted to lighten the load: stop drawing my Inktober entries, take a hiatus from the blogs and the daily 750 Words, and focus only on finishing Meet the Lidwells.  Or maybe even take a break from that as well.

And then it occurred to me:  That’s how they win.

The last thing I ever want to do is give up my creativity for frustrating reasons.  Yes, I know, this is my Day Job, the one that brings in the money.  But really — do I want to put my lifelong career goals aside because of it?  Hell to the fucking NO.  It aggravates the hell out of me when that happens.

Even if it’s something insignificant like the blogs or the daily words or the Inktober drawings?  Yes, even those.  It’s part of who I am and what I want to do with my life.  They’re the practice that makes me better at what I do, and I can’t give that up.  I won’t give that up.

I was greatly tempted to put up a ‘fly-by’ post a few times over the last few days and say ‘I’ll be back when things quiet down’, but the more I thought about it, the more it made me angry.  I did not want to do that.  It felt like I’d be slacking off, or worse, not taking my writing career seriously.

Don’t get me wrong.  Sometimes it’s hard as hell to balance my Day Job life with my writing life.  I get that.  A hell of a lot of creative people have to contend with that.  We all take time off to recharge, or to regain sanity, or finish a Day Job project, or whatever.  I’ve done it myself plenty of times.  [Hell, I did nothing during my vacation last week except take pictures and do the Inktober entries.]  But I don’t really think I’ve hit that point just yet.

I don’t want to call it.  Not just yet.

Is There Any Escape from Noise?

Lately my sinuses have been slightly congested (partly due to the heat and the pollen from that heatwave we had a short while ago, which was followed up by a few rain storms and ridiculous humidity), and my right ear has been blocked up a little bit.  I’m not sure if it’s due to that, or if there’s wax build-up, or if I have tinnitus.  I can still hear, just the some of the treble fine-tuning seems to be muffled ever so slightly, and there is a ringing.  I’m going to keep an eye (ear?) on it and if it doesn’t get better (or indeed gets worse), then I’ll head to the doctor’s.

In the meantime, I’ve been contemplating another stretch of internet detox.  At present I’m only half-heartedly popping into social media, but I’m thinking of maybe doing another temporary unplugging.  It feels like I’m starting to have trouble filtering out all the white noise* again, so it’s time to step away for a little bit.

As you’ve probably guessed, I tend to go through this phase maybe once or twice a year.  It’s usually brought on when I’m getting frustrated with my lack of significant writing progress.  It’s also brought on when opening Twitter starts to feel more like an addictive drug hit than a social connection.  And that’s never a good thing.

SO.  Starting this week I’ve backed away from social media for a little while, and will return most likely mid-October.  I’ve got a few busy weeks ahead of me (both Day Job and vacation back to MA) so I think it’s probably for the best that I get my head quieted down and focus on what needs focusing on.

This won’t bother the Daily Words or the blogs at all…those I’ll still work on.  We shall see what happens upon return.

 

* – This is not meant to have any racial or political connotations; it’s truly white noise I’m talking about. That is, the jumble of all the voices out there, talking about anything and everything.

Thank you, autosave

doctor who what
My initial reaction on Wednesday night.

So the other night while digging underneath the desk to lay down an ant trap (damn little buggers come out of nowhere when it’s overly warm out, even up here on the third floor), when I accidentally hit the switch to the power strip, turning everything off — my PC, my desk lamp, my work router, and a few other things.

Suffice it to say, I had not hit ‘save’ on that night’s work on Meet the Lidwells.

SO!  One small heart attack later, I rebooted everything, and I’m glad to say that MS Word did in fact hit a save point about ten minutes beforehand, and temporarily saved my work.  All in all I lost maybe only twenty words or so. I was able to pick right back up and finish (and SAVE) my words for the night.  [Mind you, ever since I lost those couple hundred words for unknown reasons a few months back, I’ve been logging into Dropbox just to make sure everything saved.]

Please let this little PSA be a gentle reminder, my writer friends, to FREQUENTLY SAVE YOUR WORK.

Your sanity will thank you.

On Writing: ‘Crunch’

naruto paperwork

Hoo boy.

This article about ‘worshiping crunch’ popped up on Twitter on Wednesday and it’s making the rounds of many of the webcomic and freelance artists I follow.  The reaction to the article is overwhelmingly, this is not only horseshit, it’s unhealthy.

The tl;dr to save you from the flashy prose of the article:  Some creative people thrive on working eighty hours a day plus overtime, working on things due in four minutes, eating microwave ramen and Cheetos and drinking up all those 5-hour boost drinks in one go.  Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but it’s not that far from the truth.  The article is an excerpt from the writer’s upcoming book about the cut-throat video game industry.

[EDIT: The writer has since come out stating that his excerpt has very much been taken out of context; he himself disdains the ‘crunch’ idea, which was lost in translation from the book to the online magazine.]

It really did get me thinking about my own work life, nonetheless.

I get it; some people thrive on the high-speed, high-maintenance atmosphere of certain industries, where most of your waking life (and probably most of your sleeping part of it as well) is spent ‘crunching’, getting a week or a month’s worth of regular-speed work into a short amount of time.

The last time I did the ‘crunch’ thing was at Yankee Candle, over ten years ago.  Five years’ worth of working ‘mandatory overtime’ hours in the shipping department during fourth quarter.  Q4 is of course holiday sales season, so our candle output shot up exponentially during that season.  In 2002 it also included a few outside vendors who would buy in bulk.  [Our team won the MVP award that year for Bravery In the Face of Insurmountable Odds and Success Despite Incredibly Unrealistic Sales Goals.]

Mind you, my hours were already pretty early: 6am to 2pm, five days a week.  When it came to Q4, however, that ended up changing to 4am to 3pm, six days a week, Monday through Saturday.  I didn’t complain, because a) I was getting pretty good pay, and the OT pay gave me a good padding in the bank for my bills, b) I got along with pretty much everyone in my department, so it wasn’t a completely hellish atmosphere, and c) I could still dedicate the early evening hours to my writing the trilogy.

Yes, even after ten hour days on the floor, I still went ahead and hit my 1000-word goal almost every night.

The downsides were plentiful as well.  I was getting up at 2am and driving thirty miles through midwestern Massachusetts before any of the snow plows or sanding trucks were even out of the DPW barns.  I had a half-pack a day smoking habit.  I drank a huge cup of coffee (extra cream and sugar) in the morning and multiple giant bottles of Mountain Dew at work (and usually a can or two during my writing sessions), and ate a lot of really unhealthy convenience store food and snacks.  I was lifting 30-40 pound boxes and lugging heavy pallets all day long.

Suffice it to say, every damn year I’d miss about a week’s worth of work close to Christmas, because I’d either get something like the flu brought on by exhaustion, or I’d tweak my sciatic nerve, or both.  I always felt like shit at the end of the year.

By the end of 2004, I’d pretty much had enough.  I was seeing A and driving down to New Jersey on a regular basis.  I bailed in the spring of 2005 and moved down with her a week later.

*

Anyway, about this ‘crunch’ thing.

I just can’t see myself dedicating that much of my life and health for an industry.  Especially when I’m already fiercely dedicated to my writing career.  Every job I’ve held since then, I’ve told managers that I’m fine with the forty hour workweek with the occasional OT if it’s absolutely necessary.  But I have endeavors outside of work.  I’m quite protective of my writing time, not to mention I do my best to come up for air and be social with friends and family.  Thankfully, all my employers have accepted that without question.

Hell, I don’t even try to crunch a ridiculous amount of writing work into a single day.  Sure, I give myself a busy creative schedule on purpose, but it’s a schedule I can handle and can adjust if and when necessary.  It’s a daily schedule I enjoy and look forward to.  I give myself reasonable writing deadlines.  I might complain that I spend too much time futzing around on Twitter, but really…in the long run, it’s not as if I’m trying to write ten thousand words a day consistently.  My count is more like five to seven hundred lately, and that’s just on the Lidwells project.  Add these blogs and the 750 and it’s more like two thousand or so.  And at the end of the day I’m happy with that, and not absolutely knackered afterwards.

I just can’t see myself risking health and sanity for it.  Life is too short for that.

Coming back to the grind and other notes

your name comet taki
One of many spectacular shots from your name.

It’s Sunday mid-morning as I write this and both A. and I have been up for a few hours now.  I think we’ve both somewhat adjusted to Pacific Time again, having spent the last few days in a jet lag haze.  We’re both going over our work inboxes to clean them up at the moment, and I’m streaming some new music releases over the last few days.  [Best find so far: Moscow-based Life on Venus with their album Encounters, which I would describe as Slowdive if they had MBV’s volume.  So yeah, right in my wheelhouse there.]

Our two-week vacation in London was quite enjoyable if a little exhausting — thanks to my phone’s pedometer app, I figured out we walked just a little over eighty miles.  Lots of places seen, friends seen, cats petted, and lagers or tea ordered.  And somehow within all of that, I was also able to work a little on some of the index card notes for Secret Next Project!

And if you’re wondering why I chose the above gif from the anime your name., it’s because I watched it on the plane twice (once each way).  It’s become one of my favorite movies on many levels.  This makes three times I’ve watched it — so far — and I’m sure it’ll be one that will get even more views in the future.  And yes, I’ve already decided I’ll be writing a blog post about it here soon enough, as I find it an excellent example of detailed, layered storytelling and how to successfully unfold each subplot and hint of characterization so it all fits together perfectly.

Speaking of writing, I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of things as soon as possible.  I’m still feeling exhausted, but only physically, so I think I should be able to get back on the horse with little issue.  I’m particularly excited that I’m about to start the last act of Meet the Lidwells (and working on the cover!), which means I can start up the revision quite soon!  I’m also hoping to get started on further work with Secret Next Project as well.

As for non-writing creative stuff, I finally got the drawing models that I ordered online a short time ago (half off, so basically two-for-one!) that are made by Bandai.  They’re small but they’re detailed and pretty versatile, so I think I’ll be able to use these for future drawings.  Check ’em out:

Taki Mitsuha
I’ve named them Taki and Mitsuha, of course.

They come with some nifty accessories like different gesturing hands, katanas and handguns (because why the hell not), cell phones and tablets, and so on.  The directions are entirely in Japanese of course, but they’re super easy to use anyway.  I’m sure I’ll get more work out of these than out of Wilhelmina, the simple articulated model I got from Ikea for like six dollars. 🙂

So yes…we’re back from vacation, autumn is nearly among us, and I’m eager to get back to Doing All the Creative Things.  Hell, I may even record a few more Drunken Owl demos if time permits!

Now, if I can just shake the remnants of this jet lag…

 

Fan Service

cat fan
No, not that kind either.

What do we owe our fans, as creators?

In a perfect world, writers, artists and musicians would be thrilled to be able to put their creation out there into the world, and have a positive (or at least constructive) response.  It’s not a perfect world, so we’re reasonably okay with whatever we get, be it a bunch of lukewarm responses, very small but amazingly positive responses, or, if we’re really lucky, a snowball effect of growing positive responses.  So we at least owe them something they’ll enjoy.

Do we owe our fans perfection?  Well, that depends on who’s defining ‘perfection’ here.  In normal situations, the writer defines it as ‘the best damn version of my creation that I can give to you, to the best of my ability.’  In this case, yes: we owe our fans our best work.  Anything less than that, and we’re phoning it in.  And fans can see phoning it in a lot more clearly than we as creators can.  You don’t want to cut corners, say ‘fuck it, it’s done’ or ‘…oh HEY LOOK OVER THERE’ [whoosh of handwavium].  And if our creation is in an extended universe, the last things we want to do is kludge it with a bit of poorly applied spackle or reckless retconning, or worse, not even bother with the continuity.

However, we don’t owe our fans what they would consider a Perfect Story.

We do not owe them their perceived headcanon.  Yes, our fans have invested time and care in our creations, and that’s really cool!  But they’re not the ones driving this bus.  The creator is the one dedicating a hell of a lot of personal and creative time planning how each intricate bit of action is going to unfold.  If the creator decides to do or not do something in the story, I can pretty much guarantee that 99% of the time, the creators have a reason for it.  We especially don’t owe them an explanation when we go against their perceived headcanon.

*

So why do I bring this up?  Well, part of it is due to Sunday’s reaction to the unveiling of the thirteenth Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker — the first female to play the role.  It’s an awesome decision and for the most part everyone is thrilled by it.  It’s the usual small-yet-vocal male contingent that are having issues with it.  How dare they mess with an always-male institution?, they cry.

But it’s also partly due to frequent conversations I see between webcomic artists (frequently female) and their fans, where the reader (frequently male) has ragequit the series or released a Twitter tirade — or worse, harassed the creator through the comments sections of their work — due to their headcanon not actually being canon.  And I’ve also seen it in a lot of anime and manga fandoms; for example, the ending of the Naruto manga series (and in effect its anime) was faced with a bizarrely antagonistic American backlash due to certain characters ending up romantically linked and others not linked.  It was weird, a bit unsettling, and completely uncalled for.

I admit I haven’t had this kind of response to my books as of yet.  That’s partly due to my relative obscurity at this point in my career, but I would not be surprised if it was because I was a male writer, either.  That said, though, I still think about it.  I write knowing that I’m probably going to piss someone off for one reason or another.  I won’t let that stop me writing what I want to write, though.  I can deal with that if need be.  But it still baffles the hell out of me.  It’s fandom expanded to bizarre extremes.  It’s an extreme emotional reaction to something harmless and fictitious.  It’s reactions unchecked.

I don’t owe anything to fans with that kind of reaction.

I just owe them a damn good story that I hope they’ll enjoy reading.  That’s all.

 

Frustrated

dr tennant annoyed

Feeling frustrated by my less than stellar output lately.  It’s the same damn thing, too…distraction and procrastination.  A tiny bit of it is a not-high-but-consistent volume of work for the Day Job, which I can deal with.  What’s annoying me is that I’ll have few spare moments to breathe and realign myself, and waste those moments my fucking around online.

Even more frustrating is that I’m even doing that off the Day Job clock.  Time for my nightly writing session!  Woohoo!  Let’s go check Twitter first.

NO.  NO NO NO NO.  STOP THAT, DAMMIT.

I swear, if this keeps up I’m going to have to enforce another internet hiatus.  Mind you, I’ll sort of be having one in a few weeks anyway, while we’re on vacation.  It’ll be mostly fly-by blog entries and Instagram posts.  Writing will most likely be a bit of longhand work on the Secret New Project, as I don’t plan on bringing a laptop.  Hopefully I’ll get all this frustration out of my system and start anew upon return.

So!  Let’s just get this all behind us and soldier on, shall we?

On Being a Writer: Document Retention

cat copier
Thats…not how it works, kitty.

I’ve been meaning to scan my longhand writing for quite some time.  For one reason or another, however, I’ve barely gotten around to it.  The Great Trilogy Revision Project took up a hell of a lot of my time, enough where I couldn’t squeeze any of that in.  Now that my work volume isn’t nearly as large as it once was, I believe I should be able to squeeze a little bit in now and again.

I used to be a pack rat with my writing, to the point where I had multiple copies of the same printed documents.  I also had a lot of spiral notebooks that only contained maybe a few dozen pages’ worth of work.  One of my first projects when we moved out here to San Francisco in late 2005 — mainly to keep myself busy while I waited for job openings — was to go through these countless printouts and shred what wasn’t needed.  I had two large storage tubs, a few milk crates and two wooden boxes full of stuff when I started.  As of today, I have everything in manila folders on two shelves of the bookshelf next to my desk, plus a few straggler folders elsewhere.

Over the years I’ve been meaning to create pdfs or something similar so I at least have a digital image of my work.  The most obvious reasons are the security and the ease of access: I save all my writing-related things on a cloud already, so this would put everything in one place for reference, and so I wouldn’t have to worry about losing it.  And if the apartment went up in smoke, the only thing I’d have to grab is my external drives where my music collection is!

I’ve attempted it a few times in the past, of course.  The only failure those times was due to a low-end scanning device that took one look at the amount I wanted to scan, LOL’d at me, and decided not to work anymore.  I now have a much higher-grade printer/scanner/copier — not to mention a lot more time to work with — so I have no excuse to put it off any longer.

So is any of this writing worth the work?  On a personal note, sure.  I have mostly fond memories of writing most of this stuff, even if I did end up trunking a high percentage of it.  It’s part of what made me the writer I am now.  You can definitely see the evolution of my writing style, the themes I often revisit, the imagery I like to use to tell my stories.  My own writing also shows where my mind and emotions were at the time, and my attempts to make sense of them.  I’ve even come back to a few of these trunked works to steal a scene or two for one of my successful books and stories.

Is any of it worth saving on a ‘donate my papers to a public/college library’ level?  Maybe not, but it’s worth saving for my own reasons.  It’s not just my stories, it’s the story of me as well.

Out on the fringe

abitw

I still think about that bit of graffiti we used to see in the back parking lot down in Northampton in the 80s, spray-painted impossibly high up on a brick wall and perfectly visible from Main Street if you looked directly down Cracker Barrel Alley, just around the corner from Main Street Music.   It was just one word, deliberately spelled:  ANARCY.

For some people, it was pure collegiate thinking so typical of the Pioneer Valley — next-level meta tagging against The Man as well as against the Rebellion.  For others it was simply a bit of clever smartassery.  For me it was a bit of both.  I liked the idea that not only were they rebelling against the mainstream, they were also rebelling against the ‘alternative’ mainstream, so to speak.  It made me think about what it means to be a nonconformist:  there’s more to it than just being the opposite of whatever the prevailing crowd is doing, even if that particular crowd is full of alternative-minded people.  I also loved that it made you look twice and say “Heyyy, wait a minute…”

I’ll be honest, I wish I’d taken a picture of it at the time, because it’s one of my fondest memories of the 80s.

Why this ongoing fascination with nonconformity lately, you ask?  Good question, and I think I have more than a single answer for it.

First, it’s a part of my revisiting some of my old ideas that worked out really well that I’d put aside for a while, for one reason or another.  It’s not just reminiscing about my teen years of listening to college radio and wearing weird tee shirts and ugly duster jackets and being a weirdo.  I’m not trying to recapture that.  It’s me thinking about why I was like that, how I felt when I gave myself that sense of emotional, intellectual and social freedom.  Thinking about it thirty years on, it’s less about trying to recreate that mood — an error I made countless times over the years — and more about following up on the philosophy behind it all.  Maybe there’s some truth to what I was thinking back then, that I can finally act upon, now that I have the knowledge and experience and a different setting.

Second, it’s part of coming to terms with why I didn’t completely follow up with it all.  I had reasons for holding back how far I could go with it.  It clashed with my instinct for wanting to please others before myself (which would get the best of me more often than I care to admit).  I didn’t necessarily want to make waves within my own family, not when I really had no reason to in the first place.  And it’s kind of hard to rebel against a mainstream when the social cliques of a small New England town in the 80s couldn’t be bothered either way.  They just call you a weirdo, make fun of you for a few moments,  and leave you alone.  In the end, sometimes you just wanted to be a normal kid and leave it at that.

Third, it’s part of figuring out who I am now, within the context of the society we live in at this time.  I’m now seeing a lot of parallels between my past and present, what with all the talk about a popular idiot I can’t stand, who delights in ruining the days of others because it makes him feel better about himself, pretending that he’s the alpha.  There’s also the parallel of the incurious, unquestioning followers of said alpha, who’ll just join in on the fun of punching down.  My instinctive emotional reaction wants to take over, now as then, only this time take it to the white noise of social media, and I would not be alone in taking that route.  But I no longer want to take that route.  As I keep saying — I’d only be adding to the noise that’s already there.  [I’m not dismissing this soapboxing as a valid step here…I’m just saying it’s something I no longer want to do.]  I could hide behind my notebooks (or go online) and bleed out my emotions just like I did thirty years ago, but I no longer want to do that.  It’s therapy, but it’s not entirely productive for me.

So where am I now?  Where I am is relearning my intellectual instincts. I’ve had those in the past, I just didn’t always follow them, often to my own annoyance or misery.  I’ve cleared the road of as many distractions and pathetic reasonings as I could, and the path is a hell of a lot clearer than it was in the past.  Owning up to who I am and what I want to be, and doing my best to stick to it.  And most importantly, any response I have to events and situations has become thought-out and processed instead of reactionary.

And how does this tie in with my writing, you ask?  Another good question. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately as well.  As I’ve said, it’s one of the main reasons I chose to self-publish; a lot of my stories are interstitial, meaning that they don’t quite fit perfectly into the expectations of more mainstream stories.  I don’t mind that I don’t quite fit in; in fact, just like my personal life, I embrace that.  The few times I have tried writing mainstream, it was disastrous.  I’m a fringe writer.  Not necessarily writing about the fringes, but being a writer whose style doesn’t quite fit in to the mold of mainstream publishing.

It wasn’t a path I chose lightly, but it was the one that was available to me, and the one that made the most sense to me.  It’s not exactly a harder road to take, but it’s a lot of work and I have to be up for it.  There’s a lot to learn and remember.  I’m still learning to this day.  It’s a strange balance of figuring out how the mainstream pros do it and implementing that into your own production.  It’s okay to imitate the cool kids if it gets you were you need to be, you just don’t have to be one of the cool kids in the process.

A bit of anarcy never hurt anyone, when used correctly.