Flow 01/26/21

The dreaded writer’s block hit yesterday, and it pissed me off.

I’ve been having extremely vivid dreams lately, continuous worlds and plots playing out in my head. It seems to have coincided with my current read-through of the Corpus Hermeticum, which is to be expected. Lots of mind-altering substances in those words.

Anyhow, because the dreams have been so clear, you’d think the writing would move along at a pace. Not so. Yesterday I had a few hours to work on my stuff, so I pulled up Dying World and got to it.

The manuscript is mostly a dialogue between two brothers. It’s exploring themes of paranoia and mental illness in really interesting ways. I’ll talk more about it once it’s closer to being done.

Being that the book largely hinges on dialogue, I need the characters to talk in order for the writing to move forward. And yesterday they were clamped up. They weren’t saying shit.

I think it had to do with this “caffeine water” I bought from Wal-Mart. I’m definitely not anti-caffeine, but I assume that not all of it is created equally. There’s the natural kind that you get from green tea and coffee, and then there’s the synthetic powdered kind that Wal-Mart probably dumps into it. Reminded me of the bad days, a swirling manic fog that drops off into a feeling of being completely hollow.

It got me so bummed and mad that I flipped off a juggalo on the highway. He’d gotten way too close to my bumper, typical stupid highway shit. He slowed down and we stared at each other, a couple of barking dogs separated by a fence. Then I felt stupid. What was I going to do? Beat his ass with the bat I keep under my seat? Get my ass beat with my own bat? What a silly thing to have done, to have wasted my energy on.

I got home and hopped on a Zoom call with a client to discuss his book. He had lots of questions, and was very concerned with how to make his book the best it could be. It fired me up, honestly. I think that we can all get jaded about the whole art-making process, but talking to someone who’s clearly passionate about his work turned out to be infectious. After an hour and change, we’d not only worked out some issues with the manuscript, but semi-outlined the second and third books in his series.

After that, the brothers were ready to talk again. I knocked out a solid 2k words, then read some of Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance and hit the sack. The prior night’s dreams involved a desert, and last night I was in the snow.

The mysticism of the writing process can’t be overstated. It’s a process of sinking in. It requires the phone to be put away, and for a bit of human contact. Today I started supplementing again, with Stamets 7 mushroom blend, fiber, Vitamin D, and maca powder, which I put in my protein oatmeal. I feel clearheaded. When I feel brave enough, I’ll start in on the desiccated beef heart and beef brain.

Time to see if the brothers are ready to talk again. It was getting pretty good last night.

Tonal Shifts 01/25/21

A few nights ago, Rios and I watched Memories of Murder, one of Bong Joon-ho’s earliest films. Based on the true events of South Korea’s first serial killer, it tracks a few bumbling small town cops as they try (and fail) to catch the culprit. It’s well shot and well acted, but it does something that I’m not seeing in American film.

When I watch a movie from Korea or Japan, it feels as though each scene is approached as its own world. Whether or not there is a flow from A to B seems less important than whether the emotional tone of the scene in question is fulfilled or not. If it’s a comical scene, it will play out like an Abbott and Costello bit. If it is dramatic, the scene won’t stop until it’s got you feeling weepy.

This doesn’t quite track with how American films seem to work. There are often scenes of exposition. We are obsessed with getting to the end, to have things rise, rise, rise, then climax.

Not so in Memories of Murder, or something like The Wailing. It often feels like you’re watching several films stitched together…it’s cohesive, but the tone shifts. My buddies and I have been talking about tonal shifts a lot lately, and how to incorporate them into our own work.

You do so by treating every scene as important. Everything has to have a reason to be there. No empty exposition. You might need a scene to exist to get one line of dialogue out of a character, but you’d better be ready to construct a life for that scene. Some kind of house it can live in.

Anyway, it was a great movie.

Editing 01/24/21

I’ve written before about how difficult it can be to edit a book that’s already pretty good. There’s a sense of rising dread once you cross the midpoint, into the back third of the book, and the thing is largely hanging together. You begin to wonder: am I providing a service that’s worth what they’re paying?

This butts up against the fact that I simply refuse to edit or change things because I’m supposed to. This current edit, with about 15k words to go out of 100k, has about 2,800 revisions. I have “big picture” ideas as well, characters to turn the volume down on, characters to turn up, scenes to excise. But compared to the average editing job, it’s been a cakewalk.

And that makes me nervous. Like I missed something.

I once did an edit on an even larger novel, about 300k words. The author got a good agent, who had him send the novel to a professional professional. A guy who’d worked on a Harry Potter novel, if I remember correctly. He showed me the edit. There were about three corrections/suggestions per line. Makes sense. I edited the thing for 3k, this guy got 20k. You read that right.

As I looked through the line edits, however, I had this overwhelming urge to tell my client that most of these edits were nonsense. In effect, this new editor had a completely different vision for what the book should be. He had the credentials to back up his position: he has worked on bestsellers, I so far have not (although one or two have done very well, movies in development, etc.). He knows what “sells.”

I approach every book differently. There’s a “sinking in” process, where I get used to the author’s voice. Throughout, I’m trying to get a feel for what they’re trying to do, what kind of trick they’re trying to pull. And I edit accordingly. I never think of the book as needing to be my version of the book, but the best version of their book. As such, you won’t find three suggestions per line, unless it’s a mess (it happens).

In Zero Saints, for example, a lot of Gabino’s voice was developed and in place. The plot, however, needed a slight overhaul. We pulled a bit that happened close to the end up to the front, developed some character interactions, fixed some minor mistakes. But Gabino was ready for the main stage at that point. He had (and has) the stuff.

With a Cody Goodfellow book, however, it’s more a matter of making sure that everything makes sense spatially. Same goes for Stephen Graham Jones. The edits on those look minor, and maybe they are, but they’re that little extra oomph that pushes it over the edge. Gravesend was a similar project. We only had to take one backstory out of that, if I remember correctly (it’s been almost eight years!).

In the case of this current project, there’s plenty for me to suggest and fix. It’s not quite ready to play in the big leagues, but it’s damn close. And it came to me damn close. The job shifts: instead of gutting it and rebuilding from the ground up, it just needs nudges, a fix here, a fix there. The author should be proud of that.

I think this one has legs. It’s got a little too much body fat, and bits of its body are overdeveloped while others are underdeveloped. But it’s good. Absolutely a difficult project for an editor.

As I get closer and closer to considering myself a “professional” (seven years into it, lol), I feel up to the challenge.

I really enjoy my job.

Tornado 01/23/21

The weather here is gray, which I love, although we haven’t had any rain yet. I think of Oklahoma as a “rain tease.” Every year, if you look at the forecast around this time, you’ll see rain scheduled for the week. Then, as you approach the days of precipitation, the predictions move a little further down the line…now it’s next week…then it’s gone, forgotten, cartoon suns and cartoon wind.

Then, during the middle of that cartoon sun week, it’ll start pouring cats and dogs. Go figure.

Meteorology has always interested me. It’s a fascinating science, one that uses computer modeling to predict where and when, say, a tornado will touch down.

Often, the computer models are wrong, and I think that meteorologists would cop to that. It’s not important that they’re wrong, though. It’s important that they err on the side of caution.

Prepare for rain, enjoy the sun.

When I was growing up here, tornadoes terrified me. And rightfully so: they’re impossibly huge tubes of dust and cloud that can suck you up into the sky and rip you apart. Everything you own, gone in a flash. When I was in the third grade, a twister touched down very close to my school. We had to duck and cover by the lockers. Looking outside, one kid said, “It looks like Star Trek weather.” Green skies, the sound of a train rolling overhead. We ended up being fine, but what terror!

That’s sort of the cost of living here, in an otherwise livable state (so long as you keep to yourself and don’t get brain poisoning). You become faced with the possibility that a tornado could come out of the sky and fuck your shit up. It makes you really good at assessing risk.

For example: do you hop in your car and travel a few miles south, to get out of the way of the potential disaster? Well, maybe, maybe not. The way it looks now, it’s going to miss you…but it could swing. And if you go south, it could swing right into your path, and you don’t want to be in your car for that.

At a certain point, you hop in your bathtub, maybe with a mattress over you if you’re able, and you just wait. It’s hard to explain to non-Midwesterners how routine this becomes. You sit and you wait for the world to do its thing.

It molds people. You either become an anxious wreck every tornado season, or you learn to accept the risk and, yeah, occasionally get in the bathtub.

The interrupted programming, the stern voices of the meteorologists on TV, the cell phone videos from storm chasers, it all creates this environment that forces adrenaline through your system. Just you try to read a book and ride it out! You can’t.

You’re in it.

I think learning to live with this kind of thing is vital to our survival. To treat the Tornado God with respect, to understand its power, is different than living in constant fear of it.

Ya know?

Bumper 01/22/21

There are some days when I wonder how I’m going to fit everything in! This is only going to increase over the next few months, of course.

I think the key is teaching myself to enjoy relaxing a lot less than I already do. There is plenty of time in the evening to squeeze in more projects, in fact it’s necessary that I cultivate that time wisely. But I like chilling out too much.

I haven’t played Sekiro in a few days because I haven’t had the extra time necessary. Even during “chill time” I decided to read instead.

It’s not that I need to fill that space up with work forever. It’s just for the next year or so, I won’t have time to relax. I don’t have a problem relaxing. I’ve spent my whole life relaxing. One good year of no relaxation will put me where I need to be.

Myths 01/21/21

Towards the beginning of the pandemic, Charles Eisenstein wrote a long essay called “The Conspiracy Myth.” Don’t tab away, this is important. We’re going to make a key distinction that Eisenstein makes in the essay between a “myth” and a “lie.”

A “myth” is a story that gets at a truth. When you think of Greek myths, those normally had a point. They’d take the thing they were trying to say and wrap it up in a story. In one instance, you have a god pretending to be a swan so he can rape. Some myths are complicated.

A “lie” is, well, a lie. An untruth. It’s not a story that intends to illuminate something. Instead it’s a story that intends to obfuscate.

You can poke holes in myths just as easily as you can poke holes in lies, because the nature of a story is that it’s going to be incomplete. Much like attempting to explain a joke or observe a quantum particle, the thing you’re trying to grasp disappears as soon as you try to explicitly observe it.

We have a firm grasp on the lies our government and the media tell to us, especially when it’s the other side telling the lies. We have a firm grasp on the myths our side tells itself. If you don’t believe me, start poking holes in those myths. The response will usually be, “you just don’t get it.” If it’s starting to sound like a joke, that’s because it is.

A myth is necessarily a lie of omission, but I’d like to suggest that more importantly, it is a lie of analogy. Analogies are lies that are making their way toward perceived truth.

What are the limits of myth and analogy when it comes to understanding the world?

What happens when we adopt metonyms to stand in for bigger, more complex problems? I’d argue that we find ourselves butting up against the key problem of online discourse: that we’re exchanging becomings, processes on their way towards a truth that our opponent does not want to reach.

Let me put it this way: as I’ve written before, my dad is convinced that Antifa was behind the Capitol Bloodbath Insurrection Rebellion. That’s because my dad doesn’t understand Antifa as a loose collection of different people with different agendas who have grouped and been grouped under the same umbrella. For him, Antifa means “Soros-funded agent provocateurs who want to institute Sharia law.” Swap out “Soros” for “CIA” and “Sharia law” for “corporate dominance” and I’d almost be willing to meet him somewhere in the middle of this swirling analogy. But of course he’s leaving out all the regular people who genuinely believe they’re fighting fascism, the people who are in it for the clout, and the people who just kind of like to set shit on fire. The analogy falls apart.

“Fascist” is obviously the left-wing version of calling someone “Antifa.” I mean, it makes sense. It’s right there in the name. But “fascist” is a broken analogy too, in a similar way. It’s a “myth” the way “communist” is a myth.

What are the myths we tell ourselves about the other side? What structures of analogy do we take for granted? Who is served by these blanket generalizations?

I’ll leave it there for today. Something to think about! Or maybe…it’s some bullshit. Could be. The worst myth of all is thinking that you’re right.

Sekiro 01/20/21

I bought three games when I decided to boot up the dusty Xbox One in my closet: Red Dead Redemption II, Grand Theft Auto V, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

The first game I popped in was RDR2, because I’d heard great things from my friends. I got caught up in the story, but once we hit camp and the game became more open ended, I lost a bit of interest. It is a very slow game. I play it once a week, usually on Saturday, for about three hours or so. Then I became transfixed with GTA, playing it every night. I got lost in the cityscapes, I loved the pulp storyline (which I wrote about last week), and just generally had a great time playing it.

But Sekiro…oh Sekiro. I am full-on addicted to that one. It makes sense. The developer, From Software, are the same folks who put out Dark Souls, which I still play on my Switch from time to time. Because I never beat it, you see. Sekiro is alleged to be even harder than DS, and I can attest to that. It’s because it relies on a combat system that is not immediately intuitive. Over the past week or so I’ve probably died a hundred times…and I’ve only beaten two mini-bosses (I’ve watched the YouTube for Lady Butterfly, and it just seems insurmountable).

Why is this the game that really drew me in? I think I am attracted to the difficulty. At a certain point, I was breezing through GTA’s missions. Once I mastered the driving and shooting controls, there’s not much they can throw at you that you can’t easily dispatch. I only failed one mission more than twice.

In Sekiro…I have potentially a years’ worth grinding to beat this thing. It’s not a function of its world being big, and it’s not a function of a large, twisting storyline…it’s because the game clearly hates my guts. And I hate it right back.

But let me tell you…when you plunge your sword into an enemy’s head, after they’ve killed you thirty times, it is a feeling unlike any other in games (not that I have a ton of experience, but hey). You feel like you actually accomplished something. Tonight, for instance, I nearly got one of these General So-and-So bastards down to the veeerrrrryyy end of their hit points…then I slipped up. Got too excited. Went in for the kill. They were waiting. You can die with one or two well-placed hits. That happened to me.

I’ll get him tomorrow. I limit my runs to about an hour. After that, I have to get back to work.

This game rules so hard. I even have this as my background:

Fan Fiction 01/19/21

Rios tells me about all the wacky stuff happening on Twitter. Today, it seems, there was a woman who said some disparaging things about writing fan fiction. I won’t recite the tweet or link to it (see the post from yesterday for my feelings about canceling), but I will use it as an opportunity to talk a bit about the good things fan fiction can do.

First, let’s steel-man the “fan fiction is bad” argument. Writing fan fiction is bad because it is derivative wish-fulfillment completely unbeholden to our current understanding of what makes fiction good.

It’s hard to steel-man, honestly.

Here’s why I would argue that writing fan fiction is good, actually:

  1. Fan-fiction writers have a tendency to finish their projects, and quickly. The advantage to playing in a pre-built sandbox is that you don’t have to spend extra time coming up with new characters, the world they live in, or the rules that world is governed by. All of that comes pre-packaged in the box, so to speak. Therefore, writers can focus on completing novels all the way through. Look at the output of some of the most popular FF writers: it’s massive. Puts literary types to shame (with the exception of maybe William Vollmann).
  2. “Good writing” when placed in opposition to FF writing typically means “CIA Iowa-approved MFA bullshit.” This is perhaps a post for another time, but you can learn to write by aping television, or you can learn to write by aping Raymond Carver. Both of these are valid ways to learn, and they both come with a host of problems. Really, both sides could learn a thing or two from the other.
  3. Fan fiction is free. MFAs are not. Fan fiction asks for time, and gives you a finished project. MFAs ask for time, and give you a lifetime of agonizing over one stupid sentence.

I think that the “literary” disdain for FF has a lot to do with the apparent gaucheness of not being the sole inventor of an entire world. It is, in effect if not intent, an inherently egotistical and classist position. You mean to tell me that you used the Harry Potter universe to tell a story about bisexual vampires? The horror!

But…take a look at that link again. Then check out its Goodreads page. That book has 1,000 more reviews than my best-reviewed novel. It’s short (76 pages), full of typos, in many cases labeled as “the worst fan fiction in history”…and it’s still popular. I don’t think that “irony” begins to cover it. Irony gets you in the door, but something kept these people reading long enough to quote it.

There’s a certain “something to it.”

What is that “something?” For another time!

Reframing Thought 01/18/21

I was thinking about this thing I used to see all the time on Twitter. One of those rhetorical nuggets that’s so good, so pithy, that it gets circulated around the tribe until it becomes a natural part of the every day vocabulary. “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.”

On its face, this makes a lot of sense. For example: I couldn’t walk up to the biggest, ugliest motherfucker in a bar and tell him to kiss my ass. He’d more than likely beat me up, if he felt like I was worth the time at all. But let’s extend this metaphor out a bit. What if Big & Ugly heard from a friend of a friend that I had said he could kiss my ass? He might go looking for me. He might wait until I’m at the wrong place at the wrong time and confront me about it. It’s possible he just forgets it.

Extend it further: Big & Ugly hears a snatch of conversation at the bar. Apparently, I’ve been going around saying that big, ugly motherfuckers ain’t shit. B&U doesn’t know me. He has no idea what I’m like. I didn’t insult him directly, but let’s say he’s particularly vindictive. He makes a mental note to maybe one day talk to me about that.

Finally: Big & Ugly is talking to a friend at a bar, and that friend says that he’s heard tales of a man around these parts who has been disparaging people who are big, and also ugly. This friend can’t remember exactly what this person said, but he can remember it was bad. So Big & Ugly, instead of handling the situation directly, through his fists or intimidation, decides to track down the person. He makes it his personal mission to make sure that this asshole doesn’t get a black eye or a few busted ribs: he wants to make sure this person’s life is destroyed.

This metaphor has already stretched itself beyond credibility, but that’s what social media does to us. I’m not against swift retribution for direct slander. “Talk shit, get hit,” as they used to say. I personally have only ever hit someone once for talking shit. And I had all my friends with me. Dude was completely outnumbered. It was easy to be brave. I still feel ashamed about that.

But that kind of “justice” is quick, it’s reactionary, and it makes sense in the moment. As soon as you take the time out of your day to attempt to wreck someone’s shit, especially if you don’t know them, especially if they haven’t done anything to you personally, that’s different. There’s a reason we have 1st- through 3rd-degree murder.

I want you, if you’re a person who has typed “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences” into a Twitter box, to say that out loud a few times, and realize that you sound like a fucking psychopath.

What I’m really hoping for, at a certain point, is that people will snap out of this fugue state that they’re in. I wondered aloud to a friend on the phone last night what the average Twitter Psycho’s morning routine looks like. Do they wake up that pissed off? Is it like a video game? Do they sleep well?

It seems like a rough way of living, to be honest. I’d feel bad for them if they weren’t so cruel.

Tomorrow we’ll get back to some writing talk, but today I’d encourage anyone who’s currently suffering from Twitter Derangement Syndrome to take a day off. The news isn’t going anywhere. Go outside, get some sun. Exercise. Eat a nice meal. Play some video games. Hell, you can even read a book! Then come back to the platform and take a look around. You’ll immediately notice that no one on that site is “okay.”

I wish you good health, both physically and mentally. See you tomorrow.

Tenet 01/17/21

I watched Tenet this evening. It’s a time travel movie directed by Christopher Nolan, best known for the Dark Knight films and that loud noise we heard in every trailer from 2010-2017 or so.

The plot of the movie revolves around a man named The Protagonist, a secret agent type trying to track down a Russian gangster who is trying to end the world by “reversing entropy,” essentially making death and destruction flow backwards in time. He’s going to do this by planting a three-dimensional algorithm underground in Siberia. Then he’s going to seal it underground. And then, uh…are you still reading?

Nolan likes to shoot groups of heavily-armed men running down cold hallways, usually set to fast-paced electronic music. He likes images, and he’s very good at stringing those images together. He likes it when characters first meet each other in sweaty, exotic locales. Robert Pattinson’s spy character, when we meet him, is sweaty and drunk, probably because Nolan likes that image, probably because it reminds him of le Carre or something.

Hey, I liked the movie, but I am very capable of turning my brain off when I want to. It’s confusing…people move back and forward in time…I was never really sure of how the physics of the things worked, but I dig that kind of thing. Fuck it, sure, make the bullets go back in the gun. Early on it seems like that might be a power the characters have…it’s never followed up on. See, instead they get into a machine and…never mind.

Nolan also likes the extremely wealthy, or at least the aesthetic trappings of such. There’s fine art, orchestras, yachts, expensive planes that run over expensive cars. He likes to see that money up on the screen. That makes it a little hard to care about the characters. I have this issue with a lot of movies that circle around the hyper-rich…I don’t care. The “love interest,” if you can call her that, in this movie she’s stuck with the Russian gangster, to protect her son. I don’t know. Didn’t care.

If you want to spend two hours and thirty minutes of time God gave you on this earth watching cool time heists, you could do worse! This has been JDO’s movie corner.