Talking to Myself

“Where have the rants gone?”

“They are in hiding.”

“Are they hiding behind the drop down menu which reads, ‘Rants’?”

“Yes.”

“Seems like a shit hiding place.”

“It is. Rants are inherently bad hiders.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, thing is, they want to be seen. They want to be loud and obnoxious and preachy, but those things are not always welcome in the room. So, when they hide they advertise their location.”

“Seems silly.”

“Rants typically are.”

“So, you’re saying they felt unwelcome and went into hiding in hopes someone would find them?”

“Sort of. They were told they were unwelcome and that they should find a new place.”

“By whom?”

“Me.”

“Why?”

“Because they were making it negative and bullshitty around here, and that’s not what this place is for.”

“Really? Because that seems like what this place is for.”

“Yes, I know, that’s the problem. That’s not what this place was supposed to be for. It was supposed to be a place for me to share my writing hobby with friends and family and the internet at large.”

“I see. So how did the rants take over?”

“I got distracted.”

“By the state of the world in general?”

“Among other things, yes… But let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about what we’re here for.”

“Writing?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, what about it?”

“. . .”

“Nothing?”

“Not really.”

“Why not?”

“Dunno… Not feelin’ it?”

“That’s bullshit, you know that right?”

“Yeah.”

“So what’s the real reason?”

“Civilization VI?”

“. . . You’ve had that game for a week. You haven’t written anything new since January.”

“So?”

“It’s March.”

“What?! Since when?”

“. . . Okay, you at least have to have some ideas, right? Something you’re working on, or should be working on?”

“Well, there’s Mauwale.”

“That’s the novella you started in 2015.”

“Yes.”

“And you think that counts as a work in progress?”

“It’s on my radar!”

“Fine, what else. You belong to a writing group right?”

“AWR”

“Okay, have they got anything going on you can work on?”

“Few things. . . I started something a while back but it stalled out. Guess I could try to get it going again.”

“Anything else.”

“I told Pete I wanted to do some world-building for him but I haven’t done anything.”

“Wait. . . You’ve basically completely stalled out on writing but you’re making writing based commitments to other people?”

“I thought having someone else expecting it would make me more inclined to do it.”

“Has that ever worked?”

“Sometimes. . . Pete was also a bad choice though. He regularly encourages me to play Civilization VI.”

“Hmm, yeah. . . Oh! What about that other thing?”

“What other thing?”

“The Facebook thing. The thing you were telling your brother about.”

“Oh! The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story?”

“Yeah. That seems like a great way to get back in the groove. Just doing a few hundred words every couple of days.”

“I don’t really have any ideas though.”

“You don’t need ideas; just a starting point.”

“Like what?”

“. . .”

“. . .”

“. . .”

“See, hard isn’t it.”

“. . . Wait! I got one.”

“Okay. Hit me.”

“You wake up, hung over, in the back of a carpeted van at a rest-stop alongside the interstate.”

“That’s a terrible first sentence.”

“It’s not the first sentence, it’s the starting scenario. Now go. Write it.”

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Checking In

               Realized today that I haven’t contributed to the old brain dump since before Thanksgiving. Turns out refocusing and resetting are a little more difficult than I’d tricked myself into believing. I’ve been meaning to pop in here, I just haven’t really had anything to say short of pointless shouting into the void. There are few times in my life that I’ve felt less creative and less inspired than I have in the past month or so.

                But! With the new year upon us, I figure there’s no reason I can’t just check in and let everyone know how things tuned out writing-wise in 2016.

                I went into 2016 with a couple of goals, I wanted to flesh out a short story I’d been working on and complete my first novel; or at least a novella… No point pushing the length further than the story required. I didn’t do that.

                I wanted to complete a writing goal of at least 10,000 words per month for the whole year. I didn’t do that either. Also, I got a rejection letter from another publisher on New Year’s day. So, that’s… Inspiring? Whatever, it was for the same story I already got published once.

                What I did do, though, was write a hell of a lot more than I did in 2015. Though I didn’t reach my intended 120,000-word count for the year, the final count for 2016 was 100,028 words. Which is god damned great for me. Especially since I did next to nothing for the last two months.

                And I’m off on a good start this year as well as I’ve already completed one short story, and have ideas for a few others. I’m still not super motivated, but at least I’m not drawing from a dry well. I’ve also recently felt the itch to try drawing again. I haven’t done so, yet; but I’m considering it. If I make anything worth seeing, you’ll see it. Got a couple pieces from competitions I wrote up last year that’ll see some editing and hit the story section in the near future as well.

                I didn’t realize how invested I’d become in the Presidential election. While I’ve had lots of opinions about basically everything in the past, I’d always managed to remain largely apolitical as a result of disagreeing with everyone. This time, though, I got sucked into it. Not because I necessarily supported anyone, but rather because one candidate appeared so hand-wringingly evil I couldn’t stand on the sidelines and snark anymore.

                When comic-book villainy took the day, I felt… Deflated, really. I don’t really know how to express it, and I’m not going to try lest I get sucked back into it. But it left me drained, aimless, a little nihilistic and yearning for some manner of escape.

                I turned to drugs… Well, I turned to video games, which is very similar. I got my hands on a Nintendo 3DS XL and the newest Monster Hunter game. Man, I love Monster Hunter. No game feels as punishing but also so incredibly rewarding as Monster Hunter.  I love the aesthetic, probably more so than any other game I’ve played… The look of the game is so wonderfully fantastic, and inventive but also incredibly grounded and practical. It’s fantasy in a very believable way.

                Best of all, though, is it’s inspiring. It makes me want to write. I’ll probably write Monster Hunter fan fiction at some point in the next 365 days. So look out for that! I don’t typically set New Year’s resolutions, and I’ve no intention of breaking that trend; however, I’m maintaining my intention to write more. More, in this context, is “more than last year.” So the target is 100,029 words.

                Ultimately, the point of all this is… I’m good. I got really down in the dumps for a bit, but I’m picking myself up, dusting myself off, and getting back into the swing of things. I want to do things. I just have to convince myself they’re worth doing.

                …And I need to spend a little less time on the interwebs.

Refocus, Reset

November was supposed to be NaNoWriMo; National Novel Writing Month. I had plans. I was gonna do it this year. I was gonna cheat, but I was gonna do it. See, I’ve already got something along the lines of 30,000 words worth of rough draft and notes to work from, an a fairly sizable catalog of ideas floating around which haven’t been written anywhere. The goal for NaNo is 50,000… So I was already three-fifths of the way there before I even started.

Then something happened, right around the eighth of November that… Let’s just say I got distracted.

It’s the 17th now. I think most of the shock has worn off, though waves of looming dread still wash over me occasionally. But the bulk of the despair has been replaced with resigned sighs and fits of nihilistic laughter.

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I’m in a good place, is what I’m saying, so I think I can refocus. Reset. Get back to a place similar to where I was in October. Excited and energized and ready to write.

There’s 30 days in November, which makes us 53% of the way through as of last night; but I’m already about 60% of the way to the word count goal… Because I’m a dirty cheater. But that’s alright. Morality tied a cinderblock around its own neck and jumped into a lake, dragging principles down with it; that’s what November has taught me.

So, hope is not lost, math is on my side. The world is broken, but at least now I can break the rules with a clear conscience!

So, refocus, Adam. Reset.

Back in the Saddle

               Feels good to be back on track… Nearly. September was the first month in the last three where I actually accomplished my 10,000-word goal for the month, owing in no small part to the competition at A Writer’s Recluse. I started out this year with the goal of writing 10,000 words per month for a final yearly total of 120,000. Even though I failed to meet that goal in July and August, if I total up my actual word count for the year so far I’m actually sitting at a little over 88,000 out of the 90,000 required to keep me on schedule through September. So actually doing pretty good.

                Last month I took some time to go into detail regarding my Round One submission for the AWR Cup competition. I had intended to something similar for each entry but just never really found the time until now.  Last night the Round 7 prompt was posted so we’ll just do a quick summary here of Round Two through Six.

                Round Two; The Picture Prompt: I like picture prompts. Looking at image and trying to put a story to it is always interesting. The picture I was given for Round Two was not exactly what I had expected though.

                The judges said before this competition even started that part of the objective was to takecanary writers out of their comfort zone and force them to explore some new territory. This just wasn’t territory I had expected; but I actually had a lot of fun writing.

                Looking at the picture, with its bright colors and family-friendly vibe, I was immediately put into the mindset of a number of old animated movies and cartoons I enjoyed as a kid. It invoked elements of The Secret of Nimh, David the Gnome, and Fern Gully and, drawing on these inspirations, I wanted to cobble together something fun and fast-paced and, hopefully, infused with a bit of humor.

                The picture showed a miniature humanoid riding on the back of a little yellow bird. It brought to mind the saffron finches I see all over here in Hawaii. One of the most notable characteristics about the saffron finches, aside from their coloration, is that they’re almost always seen in pairs. I got to thinking about the relationship between this bird and its companion-rider, the familiarity and closeness there. I wanted the two to be best friends. I also thought about how these little birds moved, flitting about from place to place, fast and agile. I wanted the story to reflect that movement. To not spend too much time in any one location. An adventure played out at a quick clip.

                How successful I was in those goals was, unfortunately, over shadowed by some pacing problems. In my efforts to keep things moving, I neglected few places where I should have slowed down to establish a few things and allow specific developments to sink in. It was sloppy and rushed and cost me the Round, but overall I enjoyed writing about Mixie and Orly and very well may revisit those characters later on.

                Round Three; Title Prompt: Title prompts are pretty self-explanatory; you’re given a title and tasked with writing a story to fit. I was given “The Bookbinder and the Thief.”

                “What if everyone had a book?” I asked myself. A book in which your whole story was already written; not just your past, but your future as well. What if you could get your hands on this book? “The Bookbinder and the Thief” is a story about Silas, a young man struggling to catch the eye of a local woman with whom he’s become enamored. At his wits end and on the verge of giving up, Silas breaks into the Library where the books of fate are stored to flip through her future to see if his efforts will ever be rewarded. Dismayed with his discoveries, Silas purloins both her book and his own, bringing them to a local bookbinder and bidding him to bring them together into a single volume.

                The forcible merging of two fates was a fun idea to play with and, admittedly, I ran into a few logistical issues I waved away; but this story will absolutely be reworked, touched up and brought to Warning Signs in the future.

                Round Four; Fantasy Flash Fiction: I’m not a big fan of flash fiction. For those who might be unfamiliar, flash fiction is basically just very short stories; typically, less than 1,000 words. For this prompt we were limited to 750. That’s tough for a genre like fantasy because, generally, if you want to do anything unique with fantasy you need to spend some time world building and establishing context… Which flash fiction doesn’t allow. So, instead you, kind of, have to rely on tropes; things which have been done before, concepts which your reader already understands. Elves, dwarves, dragons, knights, princesses, etc. It’s something I was reluctant to do.

maxresdefault                Instead, I dipped my toes back into waters I’d explored in a previous AWR competition; a low-fantasy world-building exercise that I knew the judges were familiar with. I toyed with two or three different ideas but couldn’t bring any of them in under the world limit, and so, in the last few hours before the hard deadline, I cranked out about 250 words which could have been better and, arguably, might not have even qualified as fantasy.

                My competition handled it much better and deserved the win.

                Round Five; The Blurb: Round Five turned out to be a frustrating forfeit. In this round, each pair of competitors were given a blurb, like from the back of a novel, and tasked with writing the story it described. Mine took place immediately following World War 1, at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles; the character was a con-artist who had forged up documents for a country that didn’t exist with the end goal of becoming very rich from wartime reparations.

                I had a lot of really good story elements to work with, including creating a deeper character than I think either of the judges cared about; but I couldn’t come up with an ending. Usually, when I write, I need to have an ending in mind before I start because, though I may not know how to get there, I at least need to know where I’m going.

                Ultimately, though, I think I let the historical aspect of the story intimidate me. I spent days researching WWI and the Versailles Treaty in hopes that an ending would come to me based on historical circumstance. But ultimately the actual history just kept creating bigger and bigger roadblocks to a narrative which, as I apparently forgot, was supposed to be fiction.

                I never actually got any word on paper.

                Round Six; Dialogue: Coming off of Round Five’s frustrations, Round Six was a welcome reprieve. The prompt was dialogue only. No tags, no narrative exposition, just dialogue… on the subject of sex.

                I like dialogue. In life I love talking to people, especially new people. I don’t think that’s often effectively communicated because I dislike small talk, but if we can get past that, I absolutely love a good conversation and/or debate. Similarly, I like writing conversations; I like the nuance of word choice, the sloppy punctuation, the pacing and pausing… All of it.

                In fact, think in most of my stories the narrative prose tends to work as a framework to support the critical dialogue which actually drives the story. Getting to do away with all that framework and get right to the meat of things was great.

                The trick, though, when writing dialogue without being able to use tags to designate who is talking and when, is to make sure all parties have a unique voice. Choice words they use, or punctuation patterns. I challenged myself by trying to make the conversation three-way, using subtle context clues to denote who is talking and when. I played with some retro-active context which, hopefully, works out for the reader… I just posted the finished product last night and haven’t received judgement on it, so we’ll see.

                Anyway, my current record is 2 Wins, 3 Losses… Thanks to sloppy pacing, being lazy, and being intimidated by the subject. Hopefully Round Six will bring me to 3 – 3, and Round Seven up to 4 – 3. My chances of winning this thing are gone, but over all, it feels good to be actually getting some writing done again.

la Ciudad de los Dioses

Snowcapped peaks rose gradually over the horizon as the forested hills of the old valley fell away at our sides. Our destination was finally – thank the Gods, finally – in sight. None of us said anything aloud at the spectacle of those glistening mountains came into view. Not even the insufferably talkative Spaniard who’d hardly shut his lips when he slept. We made the trip in silence, eyes transfixed, pulled forward by some ethereal attraction. There had not been a single songbird on our journey – locusts, buzzing, the shrill cries of insects and the whining of crickets – but I swear, when we descended from the valley and made our way north, the air was filled with an orchestra of songbirds. Nature herself seemed to be beckoning us, soothing our aches and scratches, easing our worries away.

“It’s a utopia,” they’d said “And not like in those old novels where everything perfect came at a price, where the lesson was that a perfect place was impossible, where all the promises fell short and where grim reality washed it all away. It’s real,” they’d said, “You won’t believe it until you see it. But it’s more real than anything else in this world,” they’d said.

Listening to this birds that morning, watching those peaks get closer and closer, feeling the warm morning sun on my back – I was starting to believe it.

The Spaniard whistled at me. “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when we get to the city, cabrón? What’s a man like you going to do when he gets a taste of la Ciudad de los Dioses, huh?”

I didn’t take my eyes off the horizon. “Getting as far away from you as possible would be a start.”

 

 

… Where to take a story from here? That was the challenge. Round 1 of the A Writer’s Recluse League Cup 2016 presented each bracket of competing authors with the beginning of a story and challenged them to complete it in six days. The above text was my challenge.

“Arena” prompts, as such challenges are known at AWR, are tough because they present competitors with a handful of unfamiliar elements and ask that these things be brought together into a coherent story. I’ve written a few prompts for past competitions and have to admit it’s pretty fun. There’s a sadistic sort of entertainment to be had by just throwing unrelated ingredients together and leaving it up to someone else to make them palatable. It’s all about presentation, right?

This particular recipe appeared fairly daunting for a couple of reasons but the most distressing of those was this sentence:

 

It’s a utopia,” they’d said ‘And not like in those old novels where everything perfect came at a price, where the lesson was that a perfect place was impossible, where all the promises fell short and where grim reality washed it all away. It’s real,”

 

Utopia is a tough concept to build a story around. An interesting narrative tends to revolve around some manner of conflict. A perfect utopia is the antithesis to such an idea and so it leaves me few options. I could disregard what “they’d said” and write the utopia-at-a-price version, or I could focus on a more internal conflict for the narrator, juxtaposing his struggle against a background of perfect harmony, or I could have the narrator, and/or his Spanish friend, ruin it all; allow these characters to bring conflict to Utopia.

In retrospect, the narrative seems primed for that last option with the two characters, though travelling companions, clearly at odds with one another for some reason which goes unmentioned. But I really wanted to explore the idea of “utopia.” What would that actually look like?

I’ve had a long-standing theory that any system of politics, philosophy, or religion are all inherently utopic. That’s really the goal of all of them isn’t it? Doesn’t matter if you’re Republican, Democrat, Capitalist, Communist, Christian, Muslim or atheist; the inherent goal of all of these things is a world in which all humans live in harmony. Even the nihilists, fatalists and anarchists all seek their own brand of utopia. The only missing components are cooperation and agreement. That’s why, ultimately, we spend so much time trying to convince one another to think the way we do; because if everyone can just agree, peace and harmony are inevitable.

Doesn’t even matter what we agree on, really. We could agree that some people are simply destined to be more well off, that others are supposed to be poor, that some people only get apples and others only oranges, others will starve… We could agree that ritual human sacrifice is necessary, and as long as everyone is on the same page (including the individuals to be sacrificed) utopia is inevitable because that’s all utopia is. A society that agrees.

 

I’m going to go head and write some SPOILERS below; so if you want to read the competition entry in its purest form, click here and read it before continuing. For the rest of you, keep reading.

 

I could have written about a society based on slavery and sacrifice or some other obvious atrocity, but such a place would appear immediately dystopic and broken to an outside observer. This includes not just the narrator and his companion but also the reader. The city could be a collection of crystalline towers with mother-of-pearl streets and fountains pouring rivers of nacho cheese, but the first time a severed head rolls down a stone staircase, the utopic spell is broken. That sort of defeats the purpose.

Aside from that, such grandiose versions of heavenly places always struck me as artificial and contrived. They’re a product of humanity’s worldly desires for wealth and status. Places where everyone lives in luxury, is unique and important, and gets 60 frames per second all the time. It just doesn’t make sense.

It’s those self-same desires for luxury and status which drive conflict and prevent a utopic experience to begin with. That’s where conflict comes from; a desire, or in some cases a need, for what others have. I could just magic a place into existence and declare that everyone has everything so nobody ever fights (it is fiction, after all) but like I said, that feels artificial and dumb to me.

I wanted a utopia more grounded. I created a place in which everyone’s needs are met through a system of mutual benefit. They farm, they sew, the trade goods or service to one another and have enough to go around because they don’t want for more than they need. They live in small humble homes, dress in common fabrics, they are modest but without shame. Life there is consistently pleasant and comfortable; enough to keep a person content. This contentment prevents desirous behavior, which is the springboard to conflict.

That works great for people living there, people born there who don’t know any different. But for an outsider, a person who is used to luxury and novelty, the place might seem idyllic for a while but boredom would eventually set in. That would take longer, though, and would be a more spiritual struggle than an outright offense to morality or sensation. A more interesting conflict which I felt was more appropriate to this particular narrative opener. The goal, in writing this, was to keep the reader in idyllic mode for as long as the narrator remained there, prevent the reader from noticing that, though this place seems great, like a place you’d want to live, there is something important missing.

I wanted it to creep on the reader, and create a sort of, “Oh yeah…” moment. A realization that sometimes it’s the trials that make life interesting and rewarding and drive us to be better; smarter, faster, stronger. If the judge’s feedback is correct, it looks like I could have drawn that out a little further than I did to create a more engaging story and more climactic ending.

I linked above to the draft version submitted to the competition and I’ll link it again here. I really enjoyed writing this story and playing with these ideas. I imagine that when the competition ends I’ll revisit this piece, make some of the changes suggested by the judge and put it up here at Warning Signs in the Unpublished Stories section. So be on the lookout for that.

A Writer’s Recluse

              Last night marked the deadline for the first round of the “A Writer’s Recluse League Cup 2016” competition. It’s a friendly competition held whenever conditions are right by a group of friends on the A Writer’s Recluse forum. A place I’ve been writing and experimenting for nearly a decade now.

              I’ve always enjoyed writing for AWR competitions. Sure there are no prizes; no trophies or book deals or anything beyond bragging rights. But the writing prompts always give me an excuse to stretch my wings a bit, explore new avenues and try things I might not otherwise try with the added promise of feedback. It’s one of the most valuable things out there for a fledgling writer, finding someone(s) who will read your work, terrible as it might be, and give you honest feedback.

               All too often when someone reads for you, assuming you can find someone to read for you, the feedback is the same; “I liked it. It was really good. I think I noticed a couple misplaced commas, but other than that it was great.” I’ve never gotten that from AWR. From the first story competition I ever participated in, right up until the Arena competition earlier this year, feedback has always been honest and valuable. Sometimes it makes you feel great, really lifts you up and makes you feel like you’re headed in the right direction, just gotta make a few tweaks… Sometimes it’s borderline soul crushing. But it’s always honest. And free.

               Free is another important factor here. AWR isn’t a paid forum. It’s just a collection of amateur writers, of a variety of skill levels and back grounds, who all came together in the same space for mutual benefit. We trade stories and reviews and feedback and advice, sometimes we’ll even line edit, all completely voluntarily. Of course that means that sometimes your work won’t get read immediately, or you might need to approach someone directly if you want their opinion; but posting a story to the Recluse has never amounted to a waste of time.

               Especially if you join in on a competition; because then you know you’re going to get eyes on it. You know you’re going to get feedback and opinions. Not just from the judges, but often from other participants or opponents, or even the audience.  

               Then there is the absolute best part, the fairly new, somewhat bi-weekly, totally optional “Inklings” Skype chats where you’ll get to discuss your work with multiple people in real time, again I cannot stress this enough, for free. I know that link says the last one was in April, but we seriously just had one last weekend to kick off the competition.

               If this all sounds like a not so cleverly veiled advertisement for A Writer’s Recluse; that’s because it is. AWR has been around for about ten years now with a pretty regular core community. Sadly, like out in the real world, as we grow up so too do we grow apart. Over the years we’ve watched the influx of new writers to the forum slow significantly, peripheral members have gone different directions and lurkers have stopped lurking. Even our trolls seem lackadaisical these days. Seriously, look at this slick graph of the last three months. 

awr-analytics

               That yellow line at the bottom… That’s new people.  Lot’s of activity, no new people. 

               Still, we hold multiple competitions a year, have our perpetually running “King of the Recluse Competition,” there’s the story and review forum, the word-dumps, the art forum and, of course the off-topic Writer’s Lounge where few, if any, subjects are truly taboo… also the super secret Underground Workshop, for those secret projects. Sssshhhh….. Though we’ve been told in the past that our tight little community can be difficult to infiltrate, rest assured that all new blood is heartily welcome.

               So if any of the above sounds appealing to you, whether you write novels or flash fiction, stage-plays or poetry, or even if you’re just looking for something new to read; please drop by the forums and register (we’ll never send you email unless you ask for it), say hello, join the club, test your mettle, make some friends.

A Writer’s Recluse welcomes you.

(P.S. We’re on Facebook, too.)

Reconstruction

Just a quick little update to note some changes around here.

1. The “Prose” page has been retitled “Unpublished Stories” for clarity.

2. The “Publications” page has been retitled “Published Stories.” Again; clarity.

3. The “Not Prose” section has been removed in it’s entirety because, let’s be honest, it was bad. For those who did not get to read it and wanted to, I am sorry. To those who did get to read it… I am also sorry. It won’t happen again.