Thursday, December 31, 2009
Monday, December 28, 2009
Sunday, December 27, 2009
Friday, December 25, 2009
Monday, December 21, 2009
Now, without any further ado, allow me to present...
Sailor Tom Sharkey and the Christmas Savages
I was feeling pretty low in December, 1914. Kate was gone, and I was all alone, and it just wasn’t feeling much like Christmas, what with everything going on. Bar troubles, mob troubles, political troubles, you name it, I had it. Even managed to work up a good-sized gambling debt, betting on the horses. Not a very merry Christmas, I can tell you that.
I mostly kept to myself, but even loners get thirsty, so I spent some time in the bar, sipping whisky and eating pickled eggs. It was no kind of lunch or dinner, but with Kate gone, I didn’t have the energy for much else.
It was in this general state of configuration that Charlie Murphy came walking into the bar, his nose up, his eyes all crinkly, like he was smelling something. Politics, most likely. Murphy was the leader of Tammany Hall, which meant that he controlled the Gas Light District, and it also meant that he controlled me. At least, he thought he did. Or, more appropriately, I thought he didn’t.
Anyway, he comes walking in and gives me that stiff-upper lip look, and holds out a beefy hand, and says, “Tom, how’re you doin’, lad?” He was peering at me over the tops of his eye glasses, and made him look like a scolding Bishop.
“Getting along, Charlie,” I replied. “Buy you a soda?"
“I’ll pass,” he said, his expression unchanged. Teetotaler, he was, and he was a professional at it, to boot. An Irish teetotaler. That’s practically unchristian. “Listen, Tom, I know you’re stretched thin right now, and I’ve got a wee favor to ask that can put you right again.”
There wasn’t much that Charlie Murphy didn’t know, and I resented him keeping tabs on me like he did. Then again, I knew he kept tabs on most of the Irish celebrities in town. Political insurance, he once called it. That and his “wee favors.” I finished my whisky and signaled Prong-Head for another one. “Not another political appearance? Election season is November, Charlie.”
“This one’s different,” Murphy said. “Personal appearance. An orphanage. St. Ignatius’ Home for Wayward Souls,” he smiled, indulgently. “You’ll be the guest of honor. And I’ll pay you fifty bucks.”
“Remember when I used to get a thousand clams, just for walking in the door?” I asked.
“Those days are long gone, Tom. Ye’ve only got your reputation, now. So, what do you say? It’s for the children.”
I just knew he was setting me up for something, and I told him so, and he said, no, he wasn’t, and so I said, what’s the catch, and he said, he’d have some of the boys with me to pass out literature for Tammany Hall, and otherwise all I had to do was hand out presents and make a quick fifty bucks, which didn’t begin to cover my debt, but I told him okay, anyway, because fifty bucks is fifty bucks.
It was only after I said yes that he started piling on the conditions. “So, I’ll bring the Santa Claus suit over to you later today—”
“Belay that,” I said. “Santy Claus? I can’t be no Santy Claus.”
Murphy looked shocked. “Why on Earth not?”
“Just look at me, Charlie. I ain’t got the circumference to pull it off.”
“There’s padding in the suit, Tom,” he explained in that convalescing way of his that always made me want to sock him. “And a beard,” he added, cutting short my next objection. “Don’t worry, Lad. It’s the full package.”
“I still don’t think it’ll work,” I grumbled.
“Well, that’s as may be, but I’ll bet the kids will be so distracted by what we’re bringin’ ‘em that they won’t even notice you’re not the genuine article.” He smiled, and clapped me on the back. “You’re doin’ the Lord’s work,” he said.
“Don’t think so much o’ yourself,” I replied. He let that go and left me to my pickled eggs.
A couple of hours later, one of Murphy’s cronies brought a large package which turned out to be my Santa suit. I tried it on, and after I rolled up the cuffs on the jacket and the pants, I gotta admit, I looked a lot like the Old Gent. “Haw Haw Haw,” I said, and the crony pointed out that it’s actually “Ho Ho Ho.” I told him I can’t laugh like that because I’ll sound stupid and besides, these kids won’t know the difference no how. He gave me a look and was about to say something when a blast from a truck horn told us it was time to make the gig. He handed me an envelope with five tens in it, and I stuck the money down into my boot for safekeeping.
Seamus McInnery was driving the truck, and he give me a big hello when I jumped up into the cab. We talked about boxing as he drove the truck up the narrow streets. The other crony, who introduced himself as Duffy, just sat there and smoked. During a natural pause in the conversation, I remarked, “This is an awfully big truck for a bunch of presents for orphans. What’re you givin’ ‘em, anyay?”
Duffy grinned and Seamus laughed. “Oh, there’s a buncha dolls for the girls and baseball gloves and balls for the boys, but that’s not what’s in the truck,” Duffy said.
“Okay, then, what’s in the truck?”
Duffy started chuckling. “Charlie didn’t tell ‘im,” he said to Seamus.
“No, he didn’t,” Seamus said. Catching my murderous look, he wiped the smile off his face and said, “Tammy.”
“Stop the goddamn truck!” I bellowed.
“Aw, Tom, don’t be like that,” said Seamus. “Think of the children.”
“Yeah, Tom,” said Duffy. “They’re countin’ on an appearance from Santa. You wouldn’t want to disappoint a whole orphanage, now, would you?”
“You put me on the bill with a live tiger!” I hollered. “I don’t play second fiddle to jugglers, because I can’t do it myself, women who sing in real high voices, because it makes my teeth hurt, and any animal bigger than a dog! And Charlie knows that, too! I’ve been shanghaied by politicos! Now, let me out or I’ll cream the insides of this truck with your whisky-soaked brains!”
Duffy started to talk some more but Seamus motioned him quiet and pulled the truck over to a stop in front of a large church. “Okay, Tom, here you go.” He set the brake and opened his door. “Come on out, Sailor Tom Sharkey!”
“Well, finally, Seamus, you’re showing the proper feudal spirit…” I slid out of the truck and jumped to the ground, and landed right in the grip of a stooped-over old priest with glasses so thick I could’ve ice skated on them. “Oh, Tom Sharkey! Bless me, St. Peter, I can die now and go to heaven! It’s really you!”
“Yuh…yuh…” I tried to say something, but the old Hymn Flinger bowled right over me. “When they told me that this year we’d get a visit from St. Nicholas, and not only that, but it was the world-famous Tom Sharkey, I knew my prayers had been answered!” He grabbed my hand in his, and it felt like I was holding an assortment of chopsticks. “Father Gilligan, Mr. Sharkey. And may I say, I’ve been a fan of yours ever since you set foot in San Francisco, lo, these many years back. I listened to all of your fights on the radio and I even waved at you during the St. Patrick’s Day parade after your fight with Jeffries, and son, you looked right at me and waved back!”
I stood dumbfounded in the wake of all these personal revelations. I’ve heard people gush before, and I’ve talked to priests, but this was new to me. Most religious types throw up a crucifix when they see me, boxing being what it is. “It’s nice to meet you, Father,” I said, retrieving my right mauler. “Now, if you’d be so kind as to call me…” That was about as far as I got when an unpleasant thought stole over me. “Say, what’s the name of this church, anyhow?”
“St. Ignatius’ Home for Wayward Souls,” said Father Gilligan, beaming with pride. “And a more spirited and enthusiastic lot of children you’ll never meet!”
I turned in a wrath on Duffy and Seamus, but they just pushed a giant bag of toys into my hands and said, “Come on, Santa. You’re up, first. We’ll bring the tiger out after you. First billing, and all that.” Duffy smiled at me, and I made the instant determination that after this job was over, he’d be the one I punched first, even though Seamus was the one who played that dirty trick on me. “All right, you thick-headed Micks,” I growled, “Get in there and help me distribute this loot.”
“Why, sure thing…Santa,” said Duffy, and then he laughed. Seamus held the door open and I stalked through it with Gilligan following after me, blathering like his life depended on it.
Gilligan led me down a hallway and into a small choir room. “Now, the children are all inside the chapel,” he explained, motioning to the door to the right. “I’ll go around the long way, and come in from the other side. You listen at the door, here, and then I’ll introduce you.”
“Okay, then what?”
“Well, you’ll come out and wish the children a Merry Christmas and maybe say a few things about how they have all been good little boys and girls. You know, be Santa Claus. Then we’ll distribute the presents and you’ll wish every boy and girl Merry Christmas. Can you do that?”
“Merry Christmas,” I repeated. “Yep. Merry Christmas!”
“Good,” said Father Gilligan. He stepped around me and nearly sprinted out the door, looking like a question mark with legs. I checked my hat and my beard in the mirror, and pushed on the padding a little bit, just to make sure I was appropriately jolly. Then I heard through the door, “Say Hello to Father Christmas!”
I looked around. Father Christmas? Was this a variety show? Who the hell was that? I thought I was going on first? The kids were clapping and yelling, but I couldn’t hear the opening act. Then they died down and Father Gilligan said, again. “Father Christmas!”
More clapping and shouting. Then nothing. I leaned in on the door, listening for Father Christmas, but couldn’t hear anything. Maybe it was a deaf-mute show.
“Hello? Santa Claus?” It was Father Gilligan.
“I’m in here!” I bellowed.
“Will you come out and greet the children?” He sounded upset.
“Okay,” I said. I threw open the door and strolled out onto the raised area where Father Gilligan stood. “Haw Haw Haw!” I said.
The children were quiet. They were all looking at me, their eyes wide. Maybe fifty of them in all, some of them real small and a few looking like teenagers. They just stared at me.
“Merry Christmas!” I said.
I couldn’t understand it. No reaction. Weren’t children supposed to love Santa Claus? It was a loveless room I was in, that’s for sure.
“Er, Santa, was there something you wanted to say to the children?” Father Gilligan prompted.
“Oh, yeah. Merry Christmas!”
“Was there anything else?” he said, pointedly.
A little kid in the front row, maybe eight or nine, said, out loud, “Last year’s Santa was a lot taller.”
“And fatter,” said the kid next to him.
Now the old Bead-Counter was getting flustered. “Have the children all been GOOD this year?” he asked.
“Merry Christmas!” I said. I could tell he wanted me to say something else, but for the life of me, I didn’t know what. And I couldn’t stop saying “Merry Christmas,” either. It was like being on the Ferris Wheel at Coney Island. It’s fun until you get up to the top, and then you get all woozy, and then you come down, but then you go right back up again.
I could feel my face getting red, and I was two seconds away from tearing these false riggings off, when Seamus and Duffy appeared behind me and said, “Okay, kids, who wants a present from Santa?”
The children all made shuffling motions and began filing dutifully up the stairs to receive their hand outs. Every time I handed the kids their present, I said, “Merry Christmas,” and after a while, the kids were saying it, too. Some of them said it before I said it, and some of them said it at the same time I said it, and some of them just chuckled as they snatched their ill-gotten loot out of my hands. None of them said thank you. A few of them tried to start a ruckus by pulling on my beard, or telling me I wasn’t the real Santa. I threatened that kid with a beating and Father Gilligan pulled him aside when he started crying. The fellows were looking at me like I’d done something wrong, but it wasn’t my fault that the kid couldn’t be civil, was it?
Eventually, we got the presents distributed, and Seamus and Duffy were throwing Tammany Hall buttons and hats out at the kids. Father Gilligan held his hands up for quiet and I took the cue and said, “And so, children, let this be a lesson to ya. Be good and kind and Santa will bring you stuff. But act up and cause a fuss and Santa may just hand you a beating! Merry Christmas!”
Father Gilligan’s mouth was moving, but nothing was coming out. Duffy and Seamus were nowhere to be found. The kids were all looking at me, suspicious-like. What a bunch of ungrateful savages. All dressed up in their orphan clothes, looking at me like I was some sort of monster. Who brought them presents? Me, that’s who.
Finally, Gilligan found his voice. “Let’s thank Santa, children,” he said in that prompting way that grown-ups talk to kids. The little savages started clapping, feebly. I heard that one kid in the front say, “Short and dumb. Some Santa Claus.” I started for him, but Father Gilligan pushed me back into the choir room.
“I’ve an idea,” he said. “Why don’t you change into your regular clothes, and then we’ll introduce you to the children so they will know who you really are? I think…that would explain a lot,” he said.
“Fine by me, Father,” I said. I was tired of playing Santa, anyway.
Gilligan hurried back out into the chapel, and I looked around for my clothes only to remember that I didn’t bring any spare duds with me. Resigned to my fate, I sat down in on a piano stool and took off the hat and beard so I could catch a breeze. Then I heard an eruption the likes of which nearly knocked me off my stool. The kids were going nuts.
I went to the door and opened it a crack. Sure enough, there was Duffy, standing in front of a tiger cage that just barely enclosed Tammy, the official mascot of Tammany Hall. She was just a cub when they got her, maybe a dozen years ago. They took her to all of the rallies and political fund-raisers, and she got pretty used to crowds of people. But that was then. Now she was older, and a lot crankier. But they still kept wheeling her out for public events. They just made sure she was well fed, first.
Well, Duffy was standing there, telling the children all about Tammy, and what kind of tiger she was, and how much she ate, and stuff like that. And, get this, the kids were eating it up! Some days, it doesn’t pay to be me.
Duffy was explaining that Tammy wasn’t feeling too well, but if the kids wanted a closer look, they could form a line and each child could come stand by him and that way they could see Tammy real good. Those kids got into line like they were being horse-whipped, each one pushing and poking someone else, jockeying for position. I watched as, one by one, they approached the spot where Duffy was, turned pale, and then quickly walked away. But they seemed to like it, too. Maybe that’s what was missing in my Santa act; an element of danger.
I was mulling over the prospects of who someone like Santa Claus could fight when I noticed a small girl, one of the little smart arses who questioned my authenticity, was staring at the tiger with a strange little smile on her face. She stepped closer to the cage, and Duffy, thinking she was fleeing the scene, motioned for the next kid to come up. But she didn’t turn and go the way the rest of the children. Instead, she spun and headed for the back of the cage, on the opposite side.
Tammy’s tail was sticking out of the cage bars, flicking to and fro, lazily. She stood there, apart from the rest of the group, staring at it like she was in a trance. “He’s not sick,” she finally pronounced. “He just wants to play.” And so saying, she reached out and grabbed Tammy’s tail with both hands and pulled like she was fishing for marlin.
A few things happened all at once. Gilligan, finally seeing where his young charge was, screamed “No, Mary Alice!” Then Duffy, who saw what Gilligan saw, said a word you’re not supposed to say in church. Tammy, who was just minding her own business, roared and kicked both of her legs backward and pretty much shattered the cage door. The children, upon hearing the roar and the crash, screamed bloody murder as a group, and damned if that didn’t really upset Tammy, who wasn’t used to such goings on. She gave a little jump, and then the top of the cage sorta buckled, and the next thing you know, there was a tiger loose in the church.
Tammy leapt out of the ruined cage and landed in a full stretch that looked an awful lot like she was fixin’ to pounce on the little girl who’d done the tail pulling. Father Gilligan was hollering bloody murder, trying to get Mary Alice to run to the edge of the platform whilst the rest of the kids ran like hell for the doors in the back of the chapel. Mary Alice, in fact, was the only thing in the room not moving. She stood there, eyes locked on Tammy. I could see the muscles in the big cat’s back legs bunching up.
“Aw, hell,” I said, and bolted out of the door onto the stage. I had enough time for one really stupid thing to do, and so just as Tammy’s back legs left the ground, I grabbed her tail with both hands and jerked her back down to the ground, away from the girl. As the cat yowled in pain, I skidded to a stop in front of Mary Alice and kicked her in the direction of Father Gillian. She howled too, but I had my eyes on Tammy and, strangely enough, she had hers on me.
“Santa Claus kicked my bottom!” Mary Alice bellowed. “I just wanted to pet the big kitty!”
That was too much for me. I whipped around and said, “Listen here, you little biscuit-grabbing…”
The children screamed again, and this time, I knew why. I spun back around, but Tammy was in mid-air. I tried to put my guard up, but my arms got tangled up in the floppy Santa suit, and by then, I felt all five hundred pounds of that mangy tiger slam me into the wooden floor like I was a paper doll. My hands were on her throat, holding her head away from my neck, but her front and back claws were just gutting the Santa suit, literally. Stuffing flew everywhere, and I dimly heard the children scream, “The cat’s killing Santa!” I’m still not sure if they were horrified or cheering the cat on. Either way, the padded suit was the only thing that saved my life.
I finally got a leg up under Tammy’s ribcage and kicked her off of me. She tumbled once and then righted herself with a snarl, and I knew I was in for the fight of my life.
“Come on, Tom!” shouted Father Gilligan.
“Get the kids outta here!” I yelled back. “If she’s tangling with me, then she can’t eat any of your little savages.”
“Tom, don’t be stupid!” yelled Seamus. “Duffy’s got a tranquilizer gun. He’s getting it right now!”
“You don’t be stupid!” I said. Tammy was coiling up for another leap at me. “She’s gonna kill us all before that dumb bastard gets back!”
And right then, Tammy pounced, but this time, I was ready for her. I dodged to the left, away from her, but I hadn’t counted on her reach. One set of claws raked across my ribs, and I felt the claret pouring forth, free and generous. The cuts didn’t even hurt, which scared me a little bit. They were razor sharp, and she didn’t even get a solid blow. However, the blow she got was enough to knock me down and she lunged for me. I gave her a mouthful of boot in return, and Tammy stripped it off my leg like a fat man eating chicken. In a second, she’d destroyed the boot, and I took that second to get back on my feet.
Tammy smelt the blood, and she regrouped, licking her lips. I was in trouble. She circled me, slowly, and I tried to keep facing her while holding my cuts together with one hand. That wasn’t going to work real well. One more leap and I was done for. So, I abandoned the defensive posture, which was never my style, anyway, and squared off. Tammy made a hissing sound in her throat. She gathered herself up on her haunches and launched at me like an orange striped cannonball.
I had my fists up and cocked, and I met her in mid-air with a swing that had every ounce of my beef behind it. My whole arm went numb, but I also felt and heard something crack and Tammy gave a most peculiar yowl and dropped to the ground. Damned if I didn’t break her jaw! She writhed and hissed, her back legs kicking out in her pain, and I felt a little sorry for her. I mean, she was just doing what came natural, after all. And would it have been so bad if she’d eaten a couple of the orphans?
Duffy and Seamus ran up around this time, and while Seamus dragged me off the stage and away from the cat, Duffy wept and howled bloody murder that he was gonna kill me. I stood up and told him to bring his lunch, and also that rifle, because he was gonna need it. Then the blood loss sorta got to me, along with all the beer I’d drunk, and I sorta passed out.
And that was pretty much that. They moved me to Father Gilligan’s office and I laid there, bleeding out, until the sawbones arrived and proceeded to stitch me back together again. Duffy and Seamus doped up the tiger and took her to the zoo, where they told them she’d never recover from the broken jaw, on account of the fact that she was pretty old. They put her down, and Duffy cried like a little girl. Naturally, Murphy blamed me for the whole thing, like it was my idea to introduce a tiger to a bunch of feckless orphans. He demanded that I pay for the tiger, and I told him to go pound salt up his ass and pay for my medical bills, instead. And by the way, the boot that Tammy stripped off my leg was the same boot that had my fifty bucks in it, so he owed me that, again. Murphy declined to reply. And that pretty much ended my association, if there ever really was one, with Tammany Hall. What Murphy did to me later, I’m sure had everything to do with me breaking his prize tiger. But that’s another story for another time.
Father Gilligan wrote some very nice things about me the following Sunday, and the whole church prayed for my speedy recovery. I sent him an autographed picture, and he replied by bringing around little Mary Alice, who was suddenly my biggest fan. I showed her my scars, and she showed me the scab on her knee she’d received when she tripped and fell, running out of the church. She thanked me, gave me a hug around the neck, and read to me the card that the kids made. It was a hand-drawn picture of Santa Claus holding a tiger over his head. I kept that in the bar, stuck in the corner of the big mirror, for years. I don’t know if it was a mistake or someone was trying to be clever, but underneath the little drawing on the front was the name, “Santa Tom Sharkey.”
Sunday, December 20, 2009
I was watching "A Christmas Carol" today, as performed by a bunch of church kids, ranging in age from 4 to 14 -- including my 13-year-old son, who, I have to disclose, was playing Scrooge -- and I was struck by how bullet-proof the narrative structure of this story is.
The setup is clean: Awful man does a couple awful things, and is presented with a warning. Then, the three spirits in three nights (or one night, as Scrooge discovers, as he awakes in time for Christmas) appear, moving the story from past to present to future. Then we arrive at redemption, and Tiny Tim is saved.
You can do almost anything to this story-- rewrite it, re-gender it, transpose it to any time period, animate it in 3-D or shoot it in black and white, play it for laughs or for pathos -- and if you stick to that structure, the story will work.
The audience, like the original Greeks at a Sophocles play, knows the plot. There are no twists, no surprises. To modern day westerners, the tale is better known than any bible story. And it's much more satisfying than the usual Christmas play material. The birth of baby Jesus -- the gathering of the animals, the shepherds, the wise men, and heavenly host -- is essentially static, the opposite of drama. It's why you can do everything you need to do with that story with those "living creche" enactments. But Scrooge's transformation from curmudgeon to Christmas-filled coot is satisfying.
The only thing we expect out of a new version of "A Christmas Carol" is to get to that ending, and along the way to be charmed by minor variations in the presentation, or to be won over by the performance of a Bill Murray or George C. Scott or, say, a gangly young man who looks a lot like you.
As a writer, I'm always on the lookout for these iron-clad structures, to either use them or play against them, in the same way an architect first learns how to build a sturdy house, before messing with the structure to attempt something like Fallingwater (There's another blog post to be written about how it is that some artistic masterpieces are on closer inspection leaky, hard to maintain, and way over budget -- yet are still undeniably masterpieces).I'm interested to know what narrative structures my fellow Clockworkers most often make use of (the old buff and bluff? The Hail Murray? The Susquehanna Shuffle?) And then I will steal them. Because that's what this season is about, isn't it? The giving, the receiving, the re-gifting? That's the real blessing. Or as Tiny Tim says, Are you gonna finish that turkey leg?
I wouldn't normally take it upon myself to link to my blog here, but I'm announcing something rather grand. The members of Clockwork Storybook kindly agreed to help me write a cheesy 1960s Christmas Special guest-starring this august assemblage. Please pop along and see our joint efforts:
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Saturday, December 12, 2009
One of the questions I get asked most is "How do you invent your characters?" Or, put another way, "What's your process for creating the men, women, children, and other non-humans who inhabit your books?"
My answer, truly, is that I don't know. I think of circumstances, the person comes to me, and the events of his or her life alters the perception. But, let me state again, I'm a people-watcher. I'm a people-watcher with a dash of empathy -- watching, trying to understand what's going on -- and even if ten minutes later I don't remember what I've seen, it's still in my head, jumbled around. Ending up eventually, I'm sure, on the page.
Take a look, for a moment, at the picture below. I took that just a couple weeks ago, while visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing. See that face? The expression in her eyes? The dot of blood on her tissue? Even her clothes, her jewelry. That's character. That's not an invention. That's real life.
And you want real life in your books, even if they're populated with unicorns and shape-shifters, or men who turn into wolves. You want the characters to be real -- so real they could walk right off the page (into the head of the reader).
Everyone has a different way of approaching character development and creation. Find the process that works for you. But, should you be feeling a bit stagnant, or at your wit's end, take a walk. Go to the mall, or grocery store; or better yet, any place you can sit and watch folks come and go. Look for old portraits on the internet (try Nat Love or these outlaws).
Stare into those eyes. Imagine what's going on. Build a world inside that heart.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
I'm flattered to be a part of this group, but also feel not a little like my name should be at the bottom of the list on the left, down in the steerage/"and puppet show" section.
I'll just have to work harder to prove I belong, I suppose.
To answer Mark's kind leading question...I'm actually between projects, which feels unnatural. The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes is done, more or less, and is being shopped to publishers. My pulp roleplaying game, Strange Tales of the Century, is done and is being gone over by the copyeditor and publisher. But I don't know when either of those will appear.
I've got one project I can't talk about, but it's only a probable project, not a definite one. I'll be doing a scholarly edition of the penny dreadful The Skeleton Horseman for Udolpho Press, but I don't have a firm date for that yet and haven't begun work on it. I've got this steampunk Boxer Rebellion roleplaying game I'd like to write, but I need to figure out how to write it. I've got a kid's book I'm itching to do, but I need an artist. And a publisher mentioned the possibility of a second edition of Fantastic Victoriana.
So I could have a very busy 2010 or...not.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
In the New Texas Weird Circle of authors, he quickly established his bona fides by being the guy in the room who knew the answer to even THAT question. And, unlike some of us, could actually be succinct, or failing that, interesting, when answering said question.
Jess, it's great to have you. Is there anything you've got on your plate that you can share with the Tickwits?
I do not want to be thrown in a cauldron with the other oathbreakers. I have a feeling that the great One-Eyed god will be less than lenient with me if I reneg on my oath to write a post today. So here goes.
One of the things that confounds me sometimes is that I will, every few weeks or so, find that I simply have nothing in the well where the words usually are. Usually I can just drop the bucket into the well and pull up some words, no big deal. But sometimes the well is dry and I just have to wait for it to fill back up. If you're on a deadline, then I have to find other options. I look for puddles nearby that I can sop up, maybe try to squeeze some words from something else I wrote a while back and discarded.
Ideally, though, I have to wait for the words to pile up a bit before I can start going again. Now here's the question: what can you do to help fill the well with new words? When I can't write, I spend a lot of time reading, which seems to help a bit. It makes sense: some of the words in those books are bound to get shaken loose from the page and fall down into the well. But sometimes even reading seems too hard, too uninspiring. When I can't read, I'll watch a movie, preferably something that I've never seen, something that came out a long time ago and isn't part of the current zeitgeist; the words are always better if they've been aged a bit first. If I can't watch a movie, I'll watch TV. If I can't even watch TV, then I know I'm screwed. Then it just becomes a waiting game. Me and my blank computer screen. Me lying on the couch looking up at the ceiling. Me waiting.
But then, after that waiting, something finally clicks. It's never a conscious thing. Never a "I'm going to get up and write now, by Odin's beard!" Instead, an idea comes into the front of the mind. "What if..." and I get up and run to the keyboard. "What if... What if..." and the words are now spilling up out of the well unbidden.
It's an interesting cycle, and it seems to work for me. The downside, though, is that during the waiting part, I often have thoughts along the lines of, "My career is over." and "I will never have another good idea again, assuming I ever had any to begin with." These are feelings that I'd rather avoid entirely if at all possible.
So I put it to my fellow Clockworkers: what's your pattern? Do you ever end up in that waiting place? If so, do you have ways to get out of it? Do you have ways of avoiding it altogether? How do you keep regular bucketfuls of words coming out of the well?
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Since late last year, I've been involved in a long ongoing reading project, reading the classic runs on all of the silver age Marvel Comics titles from start to finish. Early this year I finished reading Lee and Kirby's run on Fantastic Four, then moved on to Lee and Ditko's "Doctor Strange" stories and the Lee-Kirby and Steranko "Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD" stories from Strange Tales. Currently I'm approaching the end of the Lee-Kirby run on The Mighty Thor.
Throughout, whenever I'm reading something drawn (or at least laid-out) by Kirby in his silver age Marvel period, I'm perplexed by a strange bit of layout that he continually uses.
Since the earliest days of silver age Marvel, Kirby typically used a three-tier layout for the majority of the pages. In the early days, there would often be three panels per tier (a nine-panel grid), or even more.
Here's an example from Fantastic Four #1.
As the various series progressed, Kirby broke the stories down into fewer and fewer panels, while keeping the three-tier format as the standard page layout. The most panels you'd typically get on the page by that point was six, all of equal size on three tiers. Here's an example from Fantastic Four #61.
But eventually even six-panel-pages became somewhat rare, with the majority of the pages being five-panels, and almost all of the five-panel pages use that same three-tiered layout, with one of the tiers being a page-width panel (so it would be 2-1-1, 1-2-1, or 1-1-2). Here's an example from The Mighty Thor #136.
(Essentially Kirby was working out a visual syntax for his comics, structures that he could use again and again. When he moved over to DC a few years later, he perfected this to an art, with his "syntax" expanding to include the layout of entire issues, nearly always with two-page spreads on pages 2 and 3, four panel grids, etc. But that's a discussion for another time.)
Okay, so what bugs me about this? Well, note that I said "usually" and "typically." When there are three tiers on a page, Kirby virtually always laid them out so that they were all the same height, each taking up one third of the page from top to bottom.
But when he didn't use a three-tier layout, and instead used a two-tier layout? Then the top tier was virtually always bigger than the bottom.
And this wasn't a late development. He did it for years. Here's an example from Fantastic Four #1 again.
And again from Fantastic Four #61
And once more from The Mighty Thor #136.
As I've said, as time went on Kirby tended to break the story into fewer panels, and the nine-panel grids of the early days were rarely seen in later years. And these three examples certainly show that progression, from a six-panel grid, to a four-panel, to a two-panel. (I'm cheating just a little bit, as the Thor example above actually came out a few months before the later Fantastic Four, but that's just because I'm too lazy to keep hunting for other visual examples.) But look at those proportions from top to bottom. They're almost identical, over the course of five years or more.
So my problem is this: Why did Kirby nearly always use unequal tiers when dividing the page into two tiers, when he used equal tiers when dividing it into three? And why was it always the top tier that was the larger?
Somebody help me please, I've got to know!
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Friday, November 20, 2009
I mentioned this online, and Willingham asked how writers in pre-internet days were able to write, without having recourse to Google Image. And honestly, I didn't know the answer. It's gotten to the point that I can't imagine writing without having access to internet searches, not just for image reference but for research and data.
How about the rest of the Tick-Tock Gang? Have you become as dependent on the internets as Bill and I have?
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Sunday, November 15, 2009
I was cruising the web the other day, and found this blog entry about how and why businesses, even successful ones, fail. The five stages of decline pertain to almost any profession -- but as a writer, I found them particularly relevant.
STAGE 1: HUBRIS BORN OF SUCCESS
So, let's enter a fantasy world for a moment. Pretend your first book is a critical and commercial success -- you're at the top of the dog pile, and miracle upon miracle, your next book does just as well. And the third, too. You're, like, a genius. Right? You can't not write a gem. Easy breezy.
Uh-huh. Start sweating. Put your feet back on the ground, darlin'.
Look at it this way: You wouldn't expect Michael Phelps to keep winning Olympic gold medals without training. You wouldn't expect, at all, that he could spend a year on the couch eating nachos and jelly beans, and then dive back into the pool and break more world records. You'd call him a fool if he tried.
Don't let success, however you measure it, turn you into a fool. The work never ends. All that changes is how you approach the work -- whether you come to it with dedication, love, a little insanity -- or whether you treat it carelessly, as something you are entitled to and can coast through. You might be able to fake the goods for a while, but eventually you'll slip.
Heck, you might slip even if you write another gem, a masterpiece. Life happens. Sales fall. Readers find some other bright new star.
STAGE 2: UNDISCIPLINED PURSUIT OF MORE
Taste success, and you want more. Makes sense. The problem is when you allow the visceral rewards of success to become all that matters -- when the rush that comes from doing well matters more than the work itself.
Again, step back. As a writer, you must push your limits -- explore the edges of what you're capable of -- but be practical. Think. Plan. Practice. Be disciplined about your expansion. Quality matters more than quantity (excluding, for a moment, a discussion about the practical and monetary reasons for writers to create more than what they're always comfortable with).
STAGE 3: DENIAL OF RISK AND PERIL
This is what happens when the bad reviews start coming in, or your sales figures drop. I could add some other things to the list, but those are the two that kill most writers (figuratively, and literally). Now, in defense of authors, some of that is out of our control. Placement, covers, bad copy, bad marketing -- all kinds of things can affect sales. And reviews -- oh, man -- you can't anticipate what people will love and hate. You do your best, and you move on.
But let's also be practical. If your reviews are bad and numbers are dropping, you need to accept that maybe, just maybe, you're doing something wrong. Seriously, take a look. Some authors can't handle that kind of responsibility. They attack readers when reviews are bad, rather than stepping back and giving their books a good, hard, look. They blame publishers and booksellers when sales figures head down the drain (sometimes the blame is well-deserved) instead of asking themselves whether it's possible that maybe their book just isn't that good.
Are you slipping? Are you self-aware enough to notice? Are you humble enough to listen when people say that you need to work on your storytelling?
STAGE 4: GRASPING FOR SALVATION
At this point, you're no longer at the top of your field. You've slipped. And you're frightened. It's not too late to climb back up the ladder, but it's going to take hard work, and self-reflection.
Instead, you want a quick fix. So you do something crazy. With a writer, that could be anything. Maybe you change publishers, change genres -- but you do something radical that gets you all that attention you've been missing. Maybe it works. Maybe it works for only a short time. But either way, you're motivated by desperation, rather than cold calculation (there's a difference, I assure you).
STAGE 5: CAPITULATION TO IRRELEVANCE OR DEATH
Start thinking of a new pseudonym, friend. You've ruined the one you've got now.
The good thing is, if you've got some heart and courage left over, you can start again. You can always start again, no matter what you do with your life. As George Weinberg says, “Hope never abandons you; you abandon it.”
But don't let it get to that point, okay? A little self-awareness, humility, and common sense go a long way. As writers, we're called out on a long journey that will be full of ups and downs -- but how we approach our work (and our own selves) will determine whether we fall, merely stumble -- or fly.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Friday, November 13, 2009
For those of you who don't know about the Condorks, Larry, D.J., Burt and Turk, I will point you in the direction of the first novel, The Transformation of Larry Croft. And yes, both of these books are available for free on RevSF. Is this a great country, or what?
I've been thinking about Chris's post below, about Eric Brown's Ten Tips for writers. In some of the other tips, Brown talks even more about the unconscious and how important it is to the writing process. So in coming up with a response, I started out thinking about how instinct and intentionality play into my own work.
I used to outline everything ferociously. Especially with my comics work, what with it being such a structured medium, I would panic if I didn't know exactly what was going to happen every step of the way. I understand the fear that Brown talks about: you worry that you're going to make a misstep, go off in the wrong direction, write yourself into a corner. These are all symptoms, though, of an underlying fear which is the fear that you don't have anything to say.
I find that as I spend more time writing, I spend less time staring at a blank screen. In fact, it almost never happens to me anymore. Part of this is planning, and the other part is overcoming that fear. The mistake that I made as a beginning writer was that I'd sit down in front of the computer having no idea what it was that I planned to write about. Just staring, waiting, praying for some inspiration to leap up and grab me. Or if I did have an idea, being afraid to leap into the fray and start writing it. I wrote as though every word was sacred, every press of the delete key an affront.
At some point in the process, you start to realize that stories are expensive, but words are cheap. What I mean by that is that you need to have some idea of what it is that you're doing before you sit down and start typing. But you don't need to know exactly what you're going to say. I'd think, "How do I start? How do I come up with the perfect opening sentence?" I don't think that anymore. Now I just plow on in. Grab the first sentence that comes to mind and go with it. If it doesn't work, so what? I can always start over, and I'll probably learn something in the process.
Nowadays, I work out the general layout for a story long before I sit down to write it. I ponder stories while I'm lying in bed waiting to go to sleep (which often takes me hours to do, insomniac that I am), in the car, in the shower, watching TV. I don't start typing until I know where I'm going. But--and this is an important but--I don't wait for every little piece of the puzzle to fall in place. You can spend your entire life doing research and plotting and planning and never write a single word: that's the fear working its magic.
So once I sit down, I've already spent a good deal of time working out where I'm going. But then I start typing, and often whatever it is I've planned goes out the window. Sometimes just a little, sometimes utterly. There's a kind of magic that happens when you have a direction and just start typing toward it. All sorts of little things start popping into place as your unconscious mind gets a hold on things. The more you put down on paper, the more it has to chew on. Things start to happen.
You'll often hear writers give that old chestnut that "the characters just took on a life of their own." It is, of course, nonsense. Characters are just ideas in your head, and they have no life of their own. What does happen, however, is that your unconscious mind is always back there making connections. And it's very good at emotions and personal relationships. Sometimes you'll have a scene in mind where character X wants something and character Y wants something else, and as you're writing it, you'll realize that what character X really wants is something completely different, and that character Y's reaction ought to be something else entirely. As the chain of cause and effect from writing to thinking to un-thinking goes around, all that new information stirs up new ideas. That, I think, is the magic of writing.
Sometimes I'll read something I've written and think, "That's just wrong." Something doesn't click; it doesn't feel right, and you can't put your finger on what it is. I think often these jarring disconnects come when your conscious mind has forced a story into a situation where it doesn't belong, and your unconscious mind, your instinct, is back there bleating wordlessly at you, telling you that it doesn't belong there. To me, the unconscious is a big mess of images and words and phrases and emotions that can't speak clearly; it can't speak up for itself. So when you sense that wrongness (or rightness, which happens sometimes, too) you have to really listen to it. Go back and examine what you've done, line by line. When does the screaming become the loudest? Is there some key sentence or bit of dialog that really gets it going?
Often you already know the answer, and you're afraid to admit it because fixing it would take so much effort. I recently had a situation in the novel where the character that I wanted to have in the book just didn't belong in it. I was trying to shoehorn her in because I liked the idea of her. But she created more problems than she solved. She was, ultimately, unnecessary. Every time I read a scene with her, I started to get bored. At the same time, there was another character who really needed to be there, but seemed kind of one-note and uninteresting. At one point, I found myself writing a scene for the unnecessary character, and when I went back to look at what I'd written, I realized that in two places, I'd typed the other character's name unintentionally. And there was the answer. I went back and excised the unnecessary character, blending her in with the character that needed to be there, and that feeling of wrongness completely vanished. I got rid of someone who didn't belong, and I fixed a character who was broken, all in one fell swoop. But I had to own up to the fact that what I was doing wasn't working, and I spent an entire day correcting that misstep. But boy was it worth it.
So, to put this in geek terms: plan carefully for your assault on the Death Star. But when you get there, don't be afraid to turn off your targeting computer and rely on the force.
And if your unconscious talks like Alec Guiness? Boy are you lucky.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Science fiction author Eric Brown has posted a set of ten (well, tenish) tips for writers on the blog for Solaris Books, and while in general it's a worthy list, the same sort of thing you'll often see established writers trot out for the neophytes, he says one thing in particular that I found interesting. It was second in his countdown.
2. Trust in the subconscious. Beginning writers are beset by fear. I was. I overcame the fear - i.e., the doubt that I had anything to say, the tools to say anything - by writing and writing and trusting in the subconscious. Write long enough and the old SC kicks in. Try it.Check out the rest of Brown's list for the rest of his advice, but this one I thought might merit discussion. I know that I have often been rescued from some nettlesome plot point by ideas that bubbled up my from subconscious, or discovered at the eleventh hour that some part of my brain was working out the mechanics of a plot without me being consciously aware of it. I've set up mysteries without knowing the answer, only to discover that the obvious solution was in front of me all along, and more than that, I had been seeding clues as I went along.
I think that learning to trust your own instincts, or to rely on the unconscious parts of your brain while writing, is an important step in the development of any writer. What about the rest of the Tick-Tock Gang? Is this something that resonates with you?
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
I keep thinking about what we owe, and what we don't, and I don't have a good answer yet. The other Clockworkers' posts strike me as well-reasoned. But I will say this, since Matt brought her up: JK Rowling may have kept some of her promises, but she broke a big one--that her plots would make a lick of sense. Instead, they make less sense the longer you think about them.
Voldemort: Here's the plan, Barty. You disguise yourself as Mad-Eye Moody for nine months, then sneak Harry's name into the goblet of fire, and then rig the contest in such a way that Harry is guaranteed to win.
Barty Crouch: What?
Voldemort: You see, the trophy is really a portkey! Ha ha! It will transport Harry outside the school, where my minions can subdue him and then use his blood to ensure the final phase of my resurrection.
Barty: Okay, but...
Voldemort: You dare to question me?!
Barty: Why don't I just, you know, hand him the portkey?
Voldemort: [Stares blankly]
Barty: I just walk up to him, hand it to him, and poof, he's teleported out of the school. We can do it tomorrow.
Voldemort: Barty. Barty. I'll overlook this because you're new. But you obviously have no idea how to be the FRICKIN' LORD OF DARKNESS, okay? That's MY job. Now drink the frickin' polyjuice potion, and I'll get back to you in June.
Now, this kind of sloppiness is not uncommon. How many breakneck adventures have your read, how many X-Files or Heroes episodes have you seen, how many comics have you inhaled that you enjoyed in the moment, but about 30 seconds after putting down the book or turning off the TV, you thought, Wait a minute...
Rowling particularly annoys me. Not just because her stories depend on some kind of attention-deficit disorder dream logic, but because she has sold so many books, and made so many children happy (including my own, and soon Matt's, I'm sure) that it's clear her readers don't care about the plot. They forgive her, or they don't notice, because they like hanging out with Harry for 800 pages. Which goes to show you: charm and wonder trump craft every time. Now: Would anyone like to discuss A.E. Van Vogt? Or the second drafts that PK Dick never wrote? No?