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.

Arts and Crafts

               What month is it… August? Went by so fast I feel like I barely got a chance to get to know it. My focus sort of shifted this month, I didn’t really spend much time with writing but felt an old familiar draw from the sketch pads in the corner.

                I used to draw, in a long ago, bygone day. My friend Jeremy and I used to go to our local Denny’s and sit up well into the wee hours of the morning drawing and drinking coffee. I remember I’d sit there all night hammering away on the same project while Jeremy churned out sketch after sketch after sketch. I always admired not just his talent, but his seemingly bottomless well of ideas. I watched him struggle a few times with putting an idea down on paper, but never with coming up with an idea.

                I on the other hand, would spend so long thinking about what I was going to draw that once I had an idea I’d stick with it forever because who knew when the next one would come along. It’s a struggle I still deal with in storytelling. So often I’ll go long times between projects because I either don’t have any ideas, or I’m still tinkering with the same idea I’ve been tinkering with for the last six months.

                I don’t have anything new to share. Though I felt the pull to draw, I didn’t feel the spark of inspiration. Back in the day I drew a lot of dragons; I liked dragons. When I started to put pencil to paper earlier this month, it started coming out dragon. I didn’t want to draw another dragon. I mean, at a logical level it makes sense to pick up an old hobby where you left off just to see if you can still do it, but it felt… I don’t know… juvenile?

                Not that there’s anything inherently juvenile about dragons, per se, but more that it felt like a regression to my own younger days. More nostalgia. Another slip backward.

                So I asked a friend for an idea, he suggested a “turtle on a skateboard.” Thanks, Pete. So, anyway, I’m committed to a turtle on a skateboard in the nearish future.

                On top of feeling artsy, I also got a craftsy urge. For some reason I got to wondering exactly how difficult it would be to make a book from scratch. So, I started digging around on the internet to figure out how one goes about constructing a book. I really wanted build a book without glue. I don’t know why specifically I wanted to do it without glue, but I did.

                I found a few tutorials for how to make a modern case-bound hardcover book, but they all used glue. So I looked around for older methods, just so certain that there had to be one from way back in the day that didn’t utilize adhesives. Over the course of a couple of days I became absolutely enthralled the process of sewing and binding and covering books. I just had to try it, I had to make my own book just to say that I’d done it.

                I had paper at home already, and the tutorials suggested “waxed-thread,” I figured dental floss would do the trick (I was right). So I could sew the pages together right away. Which I did. In fact, I did it twice because as it turns out, the tutorial I was using should have been titled, “How to Sew a Shitty Book That Will Absolutely Fall Apart.” But! The second time around with a new tutorial went swimmingly and in a few hours I had a 160-page signature all bound together and ready for a cover.

               It felt really good to have created something with my hands and I was super proud of myself. But mostly, I just really liked the mindset of sitting down and concentrating on a project; the almost meditative aspect of sewing the pages and watching the pieces all come together into a recognizable form… and having it not suck. The following day (it was late when I finished and she’d long gone to bed) I showed my newly created pride and joy to my wife who would have raised a single perplexed eyebrow if she could do that trick. See, I had not discussed this spontaneous project with her before now.

               Now it was time to buy supplies. So the following weekend I dragged the wife to the craft store to buy materials for this completely random project I’d suddenly decided to try. I needed cover board and some cardstock. So I grabbed what I thought would be enough for two books. Also, glue. I was never able to find a recipe that didn’t use some manner of adhesive. In fact, I learned that way back in the Stone Age primitive man was using glue to adhere stone tips to wooden spears. So, glue has been in our collective repertoire of tools for a really long time, it’s no wonder that even super old book binding methods use it. So I caved and bought glue.

                Then it was off to the fabric store. I’ve never been to a fabric store before, not as an adult on a mission, so I wasn’t really sure how to handle it. There were all these rolls and spools and stuff and I’m looking at this giant store and thinking about my tiny little project and how those two things just do not add up. Anyway, I figure my first attempt would be given to my wife when I finished because, well, though I wanted to make a book I didn’t actually need a book. Let alone a book full of blank pages. My “office” is littered with old sketch books I never filled but also never threw away. I’ve got plenty of blank pages. So, seeing as how it was going to be hers I let her choose the color of burlap. I went with burlap because it was both super cheap, and I felt like it would feel good in the hands. Grippy. She went with a purple.

                So I shoulder this huge bolt of burlap and head over toward the ribbon section to pick out a ribbon for the bookmark; because this was gonna be a classy, burlap, book… Sewn together with dental floss to keep it minty. So I pick up these two big rolls, cloth and ribbon, and head for the counter.

                Now, remember how I mentioned this place was big? It seems they are used to supplying larger projects as well because everything is priced by the yard. So I get to the counter and the guy asks my wife (sexist) how much she needs as he starts unfurling the big bolt of burlap. I slow his roll for him, and let him know that I need about 18” of cloth and the same amount of ribbon. He sort of stops and looks at me with this, “Are you sure?” look on his face and I explain, “I’m binding a book.”

                So, dude shrugs, cuts it, and begins to struggle with making the cash register account for how little I bought. Less than ten dollars later, I’m headed home with enough burlap to make at least three books, and a few other cloth bits my wife liked which will likely become covers at some point.

                So I get home and start working on my cover. Things go mostly well. I learned why I didn’t want glue. Glue gets everywhere. If you use too much glue, it soaks into the paper and makes a soggy mess of pages which stick together. Glue is the devil. A necessary evil which, the whole time I’m working with it, I’m contemplating how I can make it unnecessary (which I think I can with some practice).

                But I think the thing which bugged me most about using the glue is that it interrupts the process. Rather than just being able to sit down and sew for hours on end and just lose myself in the work, with glue you have to do a little, set it aside for thirty minutes, do a little more, set it aside for an hour, do a little bit, press it overnight… It just sucks. That zone of Zen, that meditation, it’s just gone. That part’s kind of a bummer.

               I woke up the next morning, took the book out of my makeshift book-press, spent about ten minutes gingerly separating the pages which were glued together and when all was said and done I had an actual honest to goodness hardcover book which I had built. And that was rad… and it -was- grippy.

Book

                So, of course I immediately wanted to start building another book. I looked at so many different ways to do it online when researching it that all I want to do it try some of the other ways. I want to do it again the way I’ve done it, only better. I want to improve I what I know. I want to graduate from burlap to leather, I want to try my experimental no-glue method… There are just so many things I want to do with this because it was so much fun. 

               But there’s one big thing I don’t have and that’s a reason to be making books. Unlike writing or drawing, when these are done, there’s going to be an actual physical product which can’t fit on a hard drive or slipped into a file. I don’t know what I’d do with all the books I want to make, nor do I know what to put in them. So, if anyone wants a blank book (with or without lines) or has ideas for what to put in a book, feel free to contact me and let me know. I really want to make some cheap books for practice before I invest in higher caliber materials; but I really need a place to offload these finished products. I can’t just have them lying around the house.

July Recap; Missing the Mark

                Not much to say about July. I didn’t make my 10,000 goal for the first time this year, though I could sort of see that one coming. The last few months I’ve been skating by on outlining and blog posts and such but no actual original fiction writing so I’m not super surprised that I ran out of steam.

                I blame the weather. It’s been hot… Well, not really hot so much as humid; just really gross, sticky, just-sit-and-sweat humid. I’ve complained before that getting my writing machine in motion takes some very precise parameters; it needs to be quiet, I need to be free of distractions, I need to know that I will have time to make a significant dent in my chosen project or I won’t even start and, finally (perhaps most importantly), I need to be comfortable. That’s why I like to write at night, after the rest of the world has gone to bed. I’m a cold-weather creature living in a hot place, the night time is the right time for comfort. But, with the new job making getting up earlier a necessity, I can’t stay up late on work nights, and the incessant mugginess lately has made even weekend evenings uncomfortably warm.

                Yeah, I’ve got all kinds of excuses.

                I think there’s a certain lack of desperation that allows me to ignore writing.  I watched this TED Talk recently regarding procrastination, it made a lot of sense. The fact that I have a fulltime job that pays the bills removes the sense of panic that might drive me if I depended on writing for my livelihood. That’s a good thing and a bad thing; bad in the sense that it allows me to kick all my projects and ideas own the road indefinitely and get to them eventually, good in the sense that I’m not confident that I -could- pay the bills with my writing just yet.  That is, I feel like I’ve the capability, but I certainly haven’t found my audience.

Quitting my job and taking up writing full time is not an experiment I’m likely to jump into any time soon is what I’m saying.

                I got a review back from a prospective publisher a few weeks ago for “Empty Glass,” the story which was, only a day later, published at The Lamplit Underground. I read the review pretty thoroughly and showed it to a few of my peers over at AWR to confirm my suspicions that the reader had, basically, missed the point of the story. They asked for a number of things which, if I had added them, would have completely changed the tone of the piece. As my friend James noted; the story works because the protagonist is “not a good person” which seemed to be a sticking point with the reviewer in question.

                That’s not to belittle the publisher in question, of course. They have some certain criteria they’re searching for and I didn’t meet it. That’s fine, but it shows me that my concerns about my particular brand of storytelling might not be misplaced after all. I’ve known for a long time that the stories I write are a little different from what I usually read. I don’t spend a lot of time with intricate plots, detailed descriptions of environments or people, or even character development… In fact, (spoilers) the whole point of “Empty Glass” is that the character doesn’t develop; that, despite the events of the story, she remains the person she was at the beginning.

To me that’s realistic. In literature I know that characters tend to have an arc. They learn and grow from their experiences and in the end they’re different. But when I look at life, real life, I just see so many people who act and react the same way over and over and over despite how often it leads them down the wrong path or bites them in the ass. That’s what I was trying to capture, and I think I did so successfully, though admittedly, it doesn’t make for a character you can’t really root for.

Anyhow.

I read somewhere that if you tell people about your goals, you can accidentally trick your brain into believing you’ve, somehow, already accomplished them. So, in that vein; nothing more to report from July, no big plans moving into August.

Lamplit Underground

Big exciting day today. The good folks at Lamplit Underground have decided to publish my short story, Empty Glass.

That particular story has been a favorite among the few who’ve read my work for some time now and I find it quite appropriate that it is the first piece of short fiction to be picked up and published by an outside entity.

Big thanks to Janna at Lamplit Underground for finally giving me an excuse to create a “Publications” section here at Warning Signs.

You guys should check it out, there’s some other really good stuff over there as well.

Rejection, Regression, Diffusion: A June Recap!

I know, nothing for a whole month and then twice in one week; what is this madness?

It’s a product of where my brain has been lately, to be honest. Writing wise the month of June was… Scattered?  I dunno. I’m losing focus. I haven’t been able to really concentrate on any one project at a time so I’ve started a lot of different things which, ultimately, works out to a whole lot of nothing.

Aside from the odd blog post, I’ve started two short stories, and have begun outlining a work of fan-fiction. I know, fan-fic, blegh. Not the noblest of pursuits, but if it’s keeping the gears turning that’s all that matters, right? Just gotta make sure it doesn’t take over.

I haven’t written any (unprompted) fan-fiction since I joined the Recluse Forums six or seven years ago and diving back into it, despite relying on different source material than I was then, feels like regression… Or retreat.

I received three rejection letters in June from three different publishers. Perhaps that has something to do with it? Withdrawing from the world a bit and crawling back into the safe space. The place where, if what I produce is junk, I can always blame the source material. I stuck my little feelers out to see if it was safe, and someone stepped on them.

I’ve also grown increasingly annoyed at other stories; stories which the world has accepted. I find when I watch TV or read or even play video games, lately, I end up dissecting the experience and thinking, or saying out loud to whomever is listening, “I could have written that better.” It’s just another kind of fan-fiction, and worse, most of the time I’m lying. I don’t actually dislike what I’m seeing (all the time), but for some reason there’s this urge to pick it apart which, I’m sure, makes watching television with me an insufferable experience.

I’ve never handled rejection well, ever; but I find I tend to go the opposite way a lot of folks do. I don’t really get down on myself, rather, I pump myself up even higher. I place myself on an irrational pedestal and think, “How DARE they turn me down? Clearly the plebs cannot comprehend the opportunity they’ve been offered. Feh!” Of course, I know that’s not true and borders on pathological narcissism, I think it’s part of the same “You’re wrong!” reflex which I’m really, honestly, trying to get a handle on. In time I’ll calm down.  But until then, I just don’t really feel like sharing anything with anyone if it won’t be appreciated; that’s what I tell myself.

It’s a protective measure I’ve developed, I think, and it’s automatic. When I got the rejection emails, each was met with the same degree of apathy. I really, really want to get material accepted and published, it’s very much a motivator; but when I see:

Dear Adam,

Thank you for your interest in [REDACTED]. Our editorial staff has carefully reviewed your material, but unfortunately, it is not quite right for our magazines.

We appreciate this opportunity to see your work, and hope that you will be successful in placing it elsewhere.

Sincerely,

The Editors

My first reaction is, “Meh. Their loss.” Which, I think, is both good and bad. Good because it keeps me from beating myself up and agonizing over it. Bad because it also keeps me from growing and improving. But at the same time, at least in these instances, what choice do I have. I can’t really turn around and ask, “Well, what didn’t you like? I can fix it!” Well… I can, but the chances of getting an answer are pretty slim. That’s not their job and it’s presumptuous of me to ask them.

I’m just irritated that writing which I feel is subpar (read: not the way I’d do it) is popular, and that I can’t seem to get in on it. I can write badly. I have written badly… It’s very possible I -am- writing badly; even though no one will tell me. Of course, I realize I’ve been at this for a total of sixth months and that it’s going to take longer than that. But still!

Enough of that, though.

June is over, time to tally the word count. Between the couple of blog posts, the fan-fiction outlines and two incomplete short stories, I’m totaling up to 10,121. Still keeps me over my 10,000 words per month goal, not by much though. July goals; refocus and actually finish some stuff. 

Once more into the breach.