Monday, August 31, 2009


There's a certain obvious freedom that comes with having a very small audience. Since I can never be sure that I'm writing for anyone but me, most of the time I simply write for me. I get a vision in my head, a line of dialogue, the workings of a theme, and I try to manifest it. It's something I enjoy, writing, something I find sacred in a strange irreverent way, and while I take my work seriously, I find it hard to think of myself (or most other writers for that matter) in a serious light. It's really a foolish bit of business, stringing words together into a sentence, sentences into paragraphs, hoping someone will read them. It can also be a pain in the ass, and I wonder if anyone would do it at all if the need to tell stories wasn't such a deep-seated human compulsion. I need to tell stories, and the stories in my head apparently need to get out. It seems like this should be categorized as a mental illness, but I've heard they actually give awards for it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Taking it where I can get it

When my son was born, close to 2 1/2 years ago, I was a little over three quarters finished writing my first novel. Thank God for that, because if the entire endeavor had been like that last quarter I would probably be working on it even now.

It's true that most babies sleep a lot in the first months after birth, but they don't do it all at once, and if you don't sleep when they do at least some of the time then you are screwed. Add in a full time job and the minimal amount of hours needed to keep the house from turning into a roach infested superfund site and, well, if you're a writer then you're screwed. Sacrifices must be made, and for me it was sleep. I did a lot of writing during naptime, with my son asleep in my lap, and a lot of writing and revising in the car while he slept in his seat in the back. Thankfully, he was born in winter, so this could be done at a park with the windows rolled down (it is the desert, remember). It was an arduous process, but I stuck it out, and like any habit worth having that perseverance has stuck with me.

Still, that was two years ago, and I can forgive you for wondering what relevance this little anecdote has to my writing life in the present. Well, let me tell you, it doesn't get easier as children propel themselves like lemmings headfirst toward their first years of school. They sleep less, and if anything they demand more attention. Also, forget about Quiet and Solitude, they left for the childless neighbor's house. So what to do? Right now I'm writing this in a notebook (a real notebook, pen and paper) in my car while my son is asleep in his seat in the back. Correction: was asleep. Sigh.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Write What You Know = Basically, Nothing

How about writing what you don't know? That opens up the whole world to your fiction. Do a little research. Use your imagination. Learn something. Maybe even make a fool of yourself. God forbid you should make a fool of yourself, huh? Just remember: The Muse will forgive factual error, but She will never, ever, forgive creative bankruptcy.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Even a Swine Deserves a Small Pearl

When I was younger, and in the bad habit of not finishing things, I used to worry that I'd run out of ideas. Now that I'm older I realize that what I'm going to run out of is time. It's a less terrifying but ultimately more depressing conclusion. But I have come neither to bury Caesar nor to praise him. I'm here, quite simply, to crow.

As a writer, I have certain personal ambitions. They're pretty modest, but they're the goals that keep me engaged, day in and day out, in a lonely calling that pays me in a sputtering stream of delayed gratification. Some I've achieved, which is truly a pleasure indescribable, but like I said, they're personal, and not likely to be of interest to anyone but me. Still, it's not really fair to bring a subject up and then say "Well, I can't really talk about it," so I'll tell you of one as yet unfulfilled ambition, the very one that's pertinent to this post.

If you didn't already know it, you will now be made aware that I am a history buff, and that ancient Rome is one of my obsessions (Medieval Europe, Feudal Japan, and lately, Elizabethan England, are the others) and for a long time I have wanted to write a novel set in the Empire during the second century. I'll get to it, given enough time, but there are several projects ahead of it, and one thing I've learned over the years is that I can only do one project at a time. The rest, no matter how compelling, simply have to get in line. Otherwise I end up with a bunch of half-realized, unfinished fragments. In other words, crap.

Nevertheless, just because an idea is in the back of the line, it doesn't mean it's been abandoned. I'm constantly on the lookout for relevant research material, which I store like a squirrel and often (gasp!) read for pleasure.

So. . .

The other day I'm in a certain bookstore and I find these fabulous books on Rome that are very inexpensive. Now forgive my saying so but books on Rome are a dime a dozen, I mean, the place is older than Jesus himself, so a lot has been written about it, but what really made these books special were the illustrations, full color recreations of Roman military life. It only took a cursory glance and those babies were mine, bought and paid for.

Well, I get these very inexpensive and beautiful books on the Roman army home and in my spare time I start to read through them. It seems they focus on the Dacian wars in the time of Trajan. Wow, that's the period I was planning on writing about in my novel. Cool. I read a little more and I realize that the title of these books are not simply The Legionary and The Cavalryman, but Tiberius Claudius Maximus The Legionary and Tiberius Claudius Maximus The Cavalryman. Dear reader, you will be forgiven for not knowing this, and I myself had forgotten it, but Tiberius Claudius Maximus was the cavalry officer who hunted down and captured the Dacian king, Decebalus, at the end of the war. He's no one, really, but his name is written in one of my notebooks as an important secondary character in my evolving narrative. Unwittingly, I had stumbled on a two part biography of an obscure Roman, who up to that point was nothing more than a name to me. My friends, I live for little moments like that. Oink, oink.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

I Swear to God I Would Do It

Before I start, let me just say that in general I really like Neil Gaiman as a writer. While his Sandman comics bored the crap out of me, I think he is a fantastic short story writer- Smoke and Mirrors is an amazing compilation and A Study in Emerald is a mind-blowingly good short story, utterly deserving of the Hugo it won. His young adult fiction is pretty good, too. Finally, on a personal level, I don't know the man at all.

Now that that's out of the way, I'll begin. The other night, my wife and I were drinking (her wine, and me this delicious organic pale ale that was so good I had another just before beginning this blog) and talking (and anyone who knows me will affirm I love to talk, more so when I've been drinking, but quite a bit regardless) and the thing we were talking about was the cult of personality, how in order to further their art (and eat), it's necessary for artists nowadays to commodify themselves, often to a degree that the artist becomes more important than the art. I mean, c'mon now, in what sane universe is an author's name five times bigger than the title of their book? As I slurred, quite seriously, to my wife "So and So, he's a great writer, but in the end tally he's just some schlub who sits in front of a typewriter and lays down sentences. It's the work that's important, not the writer. For all I know he could be a big jackass." (Note: I was not talking about Neil Gaiman, and I'm not just saying that to cover up that I was. Because I wasn't. Rest assured, Mr. Gaiman comes into play shortly.)

To this my wife replied something to the effect that I was full of it, and that If I had the chance to sit down for dinner or drinks with an author whose work I admired, I would jump at the chance."Maybe," I said,"but it's hard to think who it would be."

"Gene Wolfe?" she offered helpfully.
"Nope. The work is the man as far as I'm concerned."
"Harlan Ellison?"
"Nah. I'm sure he's interesting but, honestly, he terrifies me. Besides, once again, the man is the work, and the work is the man for me."

Here it comes.

"How about Neil Gaiman?"
"No. Actually, yeah. Yeah I would like to sit down with Neil Gaiman. Because, y'know what? I'd like to ask him why the hell he (or more likely his publisher, but it's N-e-i-l G-a-i-m-a-n, he's hardly powerless in these matters)keeps using that same damned author photo of him with the black leather jacket and the hipster hairstyle that has been on his books since the early nineties. I mean,Jesus (I pronounced it heysoos) Christ, the man is nearly fifty, and I know he's cut his hair. Use a new photo, willya? Or, better yet, none at all. And the jacket's got to go. Really, every photo? Really? I'm sure you're cool Mr. Gaiman (yes, you're over 45 and I don't know you so you're Mr. Gaiman)but you're in danger of becoming a Neil Gaiman Halloween costume. Change it. Please."

I actually went on for quite a bit longer than this, but I'll assume you're not imbibing any alcohol, and we'll all pretend I stopped there. My wife, God love her, actually listened to the entire rant. She was appreciative, but she doubted my resolve.

"You mean to say that if you got a chance to have drinks with Neil Gaiman, you'd hassle him about his author photo?"

"I swear to God I'd do it," I said, and I finished my beer in one contented swig.