Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “About Writing”

An example of what I love about Cormac McCarthy

My first experience with Cormac McCarthy was when I was 16 or 17 and my older brother’s friend Doug Lowney came over and read a passage to me from Blood Meridian. Since 16 year olds are idiots, and I was an idiot, I couldn’t really comprehend what he was reading to me. All I knew was that there was raping and scalping and killing and shit. I imagined a blue-grey morning and Vikings doing the slaughter, which was, as it turns out, exactly wrong. But the point is that it piqued my interest. I later purchased a copy of Blood Meridian which I successfully finished reading on my second or third try during my sophomore year of college. It’s a difficult book, what can I say? Since then I’ve read Suttree, No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain—I am a full blown Cormac McCarthy nut. I even have a two year old Oprah saved on my DVR at home that has an interview with him.

After finishing You Shall Know Our Velocity, I figured it was time for something a little more…gritty? I pulled his first book, The Orchard Keeper, off my shelf and within 40 pages came across a passage that reminded me of what I really love about McCarthy’s writing. It’s primal, it’s fierce, it’s forceful. The prose leaps out at you like a mountain lion, waiting for you to come around the corner of the trail so that it can tear your throat open and drink your blood. It is so good that I just have to share.

Whether he fell forward or whether the man pulled them over he did not know. They were lying in the road, the man with his face in the dirt and Sylder on top of him, motionless for the moment as resting lovers. Something in Sylder’s shoulder traveled obliquely down to his lungs with each breath to cut off the air. He still had one hand locked in the man’s neck and now he inched himself forward and whispered into his ear.

Why don’t you say something now, bastard? Ain’t you got some more talk to spiel for us?

He was jerking at the man’s head but the man had both hands over it and seemed lost in speculation upon the pebbles of the road. Sylder let his hand relax and wander through the folds of the neck until they arrived at the throat. The man took that for a few minutes, then suddenly twisted sideways, spat in Sylder’s face, and tried to wrench himself free. Sylder rolled with him and had him flat backward in the road and astride him, still the one arm swinging from his broken shoulder like a piece of rope. He crept forward and placed one leg behind the man’s head, elevating it slightly, looking like some hulking nurse administering to the wounded. He pushed the head back into the crook of his leg, straightened his arm, and bore down upon the man’s neck with all his weight and strength. The boneless-looking face twitched a few times but other than that showed no change of expression, only the same rubbery look of fear, speechless and uncomprehending, which Sylder felt was not his doing either but the everyday look of the man. And the jaw kept coming down not on any detectable hinges but like a mass of offal, some obscene waste matter uncongealing and collapsing in slow folds over the web of his hand. It occurred to him then that the man was trying to bite him and this struck him as somehow so ludicrous that a snort of laughter wheezed in his nose. Finally the man’s hands came up to rest on his arm, the puffy fingers trailing over his own hand and wrist reminded him of baby possums he hand seen once, blind and pink.

Sylder held him like that for a long time. Like squeezing a boil, he thought. After a while the man did try to say something but no words came, only a bubbling sound. Sylder was watching him in a sort of mesmerized fascination, noting blink of eye, loll of tongue. Then he eased his grip and the man’s eyes widened.

For Christ’s sake, he gasped. Jesus Christ, just turn me loose.

Sylder put his face to the man’s and in a low voice said, You better call on somebody closer than that. Then he saw his shoulder, saw the man looking at it. He dug his thumb into the man’s windpipe and felt it collapse like a dried tule. The man got his hand up and began with his eyes closed to beat Sylder around the face and chest. Sylder closed his eyes too and buried his face in his shoulder to protect it. The flailings grew violent, slowed, finally stopped altogether. When Sylder opened his eyes again the man was staring at him owlishly, the little tongue tipped just past the open lips. He relaxed his hand and the fingers contracted, shriveling into a tight claw, like a killed spider. He tried to open it again but could not. He looked at the man again and time was coming back, gaining, so that all the clocks would be right.

Kurt Vonnegut – How to Write with Style

Let’s celebrate the 100th post on The Black Laser with someone else’s work.

KURT VONNEGUT JR

I am a fan of Kurt Vonnegut. I mean, who isn’t a fan of his? Breakfast of Champions is incredible. So is Slaughterhouse 5. And Galapagos. And Sirens of Titan. You can’t go wrong. If you’re not convinced, the man was in Back to School as himself. What more do you need?

Consequently, when he writes about writing, you had better pay attention; these are a master’s words and advice. Take heed.

His article “How to Write with Style” breaks down into 7 main points.

  1. Find a subject you care about
  2. Do not ramble, though
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Have the guts to cut
  5. Sound like yourself
  6. Say what you mean to say
  7. Pity the readers

Personally, I feel good about number 1 (the darkness in the human soul) and 5 (can’t you just hear me speak?) in my own writing. Number 3 and 4 are things I can definitely work on. I fall in love with certain things and often have a hard time cutting them out even if they are not working. I also tend to get all retardedly baroque with my descriptions partly because it makes me laugh and partly because I like it, but I think that it is important for me to work on keeping the flavor of those passages without the too-wordy blathering. Streamline.

If you want to read the whole article, I’ve posted it here. Kurt Vonnegut – How to Write with Style.

Happy 100, Black Laserians!

Cory Doctorow: Writing in the Age of Distraction

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a highly distractable, highly unscheduled, highly undisciplined writer of things. For example, the beginning of this post has been sitting in an open tab since Friday morning. It is now very early Sunday morning and I am just writing the third sentence. You can imagine how difficult it is for me to compose anything of significant length or seriousness. As I’ve also mentioned before, I find it quite inspiring to read about how other people structure their work since it is such a struggle for me.

Friday morning I was reading an article on the Locus Magazine website by Cory Doctorow called “Writing In The Age of Distraction” that I might have found on BoingBoing. You can, no doubt, understand then that, as a fan of Cory’s, this article got me all excited up on a number of levels. It addresses something I like (Writing) in light of a problem I wrestle with (Distraction) by someone whose writing I like (Cory). In particular, one passage really stood out and screamed at me.

Short, regular work schedule
When I’m working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I’m working on it. It’s not plausible or desirable to try to get the world to go away for hours at a time, but it’s entirely possible to make it all shut up for 20 minutes. Writing a page every day gets me more than a novel per year — do the math — and there’s always 20 minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep or meal-break (though this shouldn’t become a habit). The secret is to do it every day, weekends included, to keep the momentum going, and to allow your thoughts to wander to your next day’s page between sessions. Try to find one or two vivid sensory details to work into the next page, or a bon mot, so that you’ve already got some material when you sit down at the keyboard.

This is a very interesting idea and something I’m going to try and keep going through The Year of 5000 Photos and 50 Short Stories, which I am already behind on. Typically, I don’t write on weeknights because my work schedule can be so crazy at times that I have difficulty coming home, regaining my focus, and sitting down to work, especially when all I really want to do is eat something, hang out with my ladyfriend, and mellow before I go to bed. Of course I am never going to fulfill my obligations to TYO5KP&50SS by giving in to my base need to be lazy and “chill out,” as the kids say. That said, it is ridiculous to expect hours worth of work from myself when I come home at 10pm from work, maybe eat something, and sit in front of the computer at midnight. But 20 or 30 minutes I can do.

Since I don’t write in a program that shows a page layout like MS Word would, I don’t have a good indication of what a “page” is or when I reach it. A Google search shows that 250 words in 12-pt Courier per page is generally considered standard for a manuscript submission. Some of my own tests using a regular US Letter piece of paper with standard margins suggest that a page is about 350 words in 12-pt Times New Roman. Either way, two pages is, what, 500-700 words? That I can do. I think. Maybe. We shall see. I am really terrible at this whole “schedule” business.

The Theme of 2009

In theory, New Year’s resolutions are a good idea. It is in the realization of these resolutions where we discover that, in fact, they don’t always work out. How many New Year’s resolutions have you made in your life that you’ve never followed through on? How many people have you heard make resolutions to do whatever the hell it is they think they should be doing but then never do? If you’re like me, the answer to both questions is “A lot”. Sure, some people have success, but I’m willing to bet that the ratio of successes to failures is skewed toward the latter.

What are some of the problems with New year’s resolutions? Well, for one, they are often short sighted, setting a goal for the immediate to near future and not often considering 4 or 8 or 12 months from now. They are also generally too specific, not allowing for the person making resolutions to change their minds or to adapt to changing situations throughout the year. People and things change, so it’s stupid not to be able to adjust your goals accordingly.

A few years ago I decided to pick a theme for the upcoming year (2004, I think?) and stick with that for the whole year. The idea was that the theme should be broadly applicable with recognizable short term goals. That might sound contradictory, but hear me out. I wanted something that would provide many opportunities to express itself in easily accomplished situations, something that could apply to many things yet all fall under the same heading. Thus the idea of a “theme”, rather than a “resolution”.

Since putting this into motion, I have had a few years of success and a few years of not-success. Let’s look at some examples, shall we?

  • The Year of Trying New Things—This was my first theme and esaily the most successful. It exemplifies everything a year’s theme should be. Broadly applicable to many things (what new thing am I trying? It doesn’t matter, so long as it’s new) and provides short term goals (try it).
  • The Year of Writing—This year was moderately successful for a while but ended up being too broad. There were no goals to set except “to write”, which was enough for a while, but not strong enough for me to keep my focus.
  • The Year of Finishing Things—What? Serious? I broke both my guidelines here. Too specific and too long term. No good. Next!
  • The Year of Self-Care—Again, moderately successful since it was focused mostly on figuring out what I needed from my life, but not a great theme since it lacks clear short term goals.
  • The Year of Focus—Seriously? What the hell? Horrible.

For 2009 I am determined not repeat my past mistakes, but to really work on keeping myself occupied outside of work with personal creative work. And now that I have this blog running, I have something to keep my honest and not let myself slip into complacency as I am prone to do.

After a lot of thinking, I have decided that 2009 will be:

The Year of 5000 photos and 50 Short Stories

Right? It’s good, I think. It has short term goals (stories, photos) and is broadly applicable (stories about what? Photos of what?). It’s also enough to keep me busy throughout the whole year, but not so much that it is daunting. Originally, it was going to be The Year of 10,000 Photos after I was inspired by Bryan’s photo count on his site, which, if you have not seen, you should. But then I realized it didn’t carve out a space for the other craft which is important to me and not addressed professionally—writing. So a little bit of calculation was done to establish reasonable goals and the theme was changed.

But, you ask, what constitutes “a photo” or “a short story”? Well, I’ve thought about that too and here’s what I think.

Photo – a photo is counted when it is part of a set that was deliberately taken. I am not limited only to my selects from a given shoot, but at the same time, test shoots do not count toward the final tally.

Short story – a short story is any piece of narrative writing between 1500 and 10000 words. It can be about anything at all, but needs to fall roughly within those two limits. The upper limit is looser than the lower. 1500 words is a bare minimum, but ok since, once I get rolling, I’ll bang out 1500 to 2500 words in a sitting.

And you, Black Laser readers, will help to keep me honest! Follow my progress over the next calendar year. I will be posting every photo and every story to this site for you to enjoy. I also hope to make periodic comments on my status and how I’m feeling about my progress. Stay tuned, intrepid readers!

You can check my progress with this link: The Year of 5000 Photos and 50 Short Stories. It will link you to every post with that tag, which will be every post I make with a story or photos. Let’s do this.

A funny passage from Peter Carey’s Theft.

I am reading Theft by Peter Carey right now and I must say that I am enjoying it. I like how he bounces between two imperfect narrators to reveal aspects of the story that might not come through just one narrator’s internal filter.

Anyway, I was reading on the subway as I do, and I read something that made me laugh aloud. Here you go. A passage from the book used completely without permission.

The taxis in New York are a total nightmare. I don’t know how anybody tolerates them, and I am not complaining about the eviscerated seats, the shitty shock absorbers, the suicidal left-hand turns, but rather the common faith of all those Malaysian Sikhs, Bengali Hindus, Harlem Muslims, Lebanese Christians, Coney Island Russians, Brooklyn Jews, Buddhists, Zarathustrians—who knows what?—all of them with the rock-solid conviction that if you honk your bloody horn the sea will part before you. You can say it is not my business to comment. I am a hick, born in a butcher’s shop in Bacchus Marsh, but fuck them, really. Shut the fuck up.

Creativity, Motivation, and Activation Energy

Activation energy is a chemistry term that describes the amount of energy needed for a chemical reaction to take place. This is about the only concept I took from my high school chemistry class, a class which I failed. As in F. So I promise that the science metaphors end right now. I don’t know why that one thing stuck with me, but it did.

Anyway, I consider myself to be a person with a high activation energy. That is, the amount of work I have to put into getting myself to actually sit down and work is incredible. It is a constant, epic struggle to force things to come out of my fingers, whether it is editing or writing or whatever. One of my favorite tricks is the “Don’t get up until the CD is done” trick. Unfortunately, about half the time it leads to 35 minutes of staring at the screen of my laptop. Another good thing to get me working is feeling bad. Not really bad, like “let me die, I’m ill” bad, but like “I’m physical exhausted but cranked full of caffeine” bad. Throw the trailing end of a hangover into that mix and I’m at my sharpest, most biting, most cynical, and I’m good for about 2 hours of work. There is a precarious balance with the hangover though. If it was too strong, or not strong enough, then the whole setup is shot and I am back to my starting point of not doing a god damned thing. My newest trick which is still not thoroughly tested is this blog. Perhaps if I write often enough in this thing for the small handful of people who actually bother to read it I will get my gears going and teach myself how to work on a schedule. We will see.

So what’s the deal? I feel motivated to create personal work. In fact, when I do manage to get something done, I feel great. I am amped up. Wired. I have a hard time getting to sleep which is usually bad since by the time I’ve managed to do something it’s 3am on a weeknight/morning. (I know that the excess of caffeine in my blood might be the culprit, but please just let me have this one? Thanks.) Maybe feeling satisfied isn’t enough? I’ve often noticed of myself that I perform better when I am beholden to someone else, when I am responsible for something that is being counted on by someone whose opinion I value. Ok, that’s good, but I don’t really owe my personal work to anyone but myself, and I’m pretty sure that I will understand my own excuse for not actually producing anything by my self-imposed deadline. I can be very understanding if I need to be. Also, we’ve seen in the failure of 3 attempts at the Greater Williamsburg Writing Circle that even the expectations of others can miss the mark as a powerful enough motivator. Let’s hope that the planned fourth attempt in conjunction with my friends and allies at Uncle Magazine and The Metric System finds more success than the last three.

I don’t think that creativity is something I lack. Productivity, yes. Absolutely. I produce at the pitiful rate of one decent short piece every millennium or so and at times less often. But, creativity no. It comes out of me at inopportune times however, like when I’m walking around alone without anything to take notes on. Or I have a flood of creative blathering at lunch that takes the definition of “offensive” to new heights (lows?), but it refuses to flow when I am sitting down with my headphones on staring at the blank screen in Scrivener trying to do something, anything, God please just let me write something good. I do have to say that fullscreen mode is invaluable to shutting out whatever distractions my brain keeps jumping to and the black background, gray text combo I set makes it much easier to stare at the screen for a long time without any eye fatigue. Black text on a white page is nice because the white page isn’t a light shining directly into your eyes for hours. I could punch a bitch for all the white page/black text the interwebs subject me to on a daily basis. But all the fullscreens in the world aren’t enough to keep my focus for very long. Distraction is only an Apple-Tab away.

With these data in mind, what is the solution to creating a healthy, productive working environment and schedule for myself? In the last few weeks I have put myself on drinking hiatus and it seems to be helping me have moments of electric inspiration which gets transcribed to the writing tablet I keep beside the bed. It is surprising that one wonderful beer after work is enough to dull my brain to a point where nothing smart or good wants to come out of it. Or not surprising, I guess. That is good, but I miss beers. I have also found that reading non-fiction is a great way to get my mind thinking about something other than what I am reading. Most of what I read for pleasure is fiction, and when I get into it, which is most of the time, I am totally wrapped up in what is going on in the story, between the characters, and in the text. My brain is focused. When I read non-fiction, especially dry non-fiction, my brain wanders and little bursts of goodness erupt, tiny undersea volcanoes of creativity. That is good too, but I can only take so much dry non-fiction before I want to throw up. I would love to figure out how to get my brain into that not-drinking not-fiction place while drinking and reading fiction. I also wish I had a unicorn and superpowers, but we can’t have everything we want, can we? And, if I magically am blessed with profound, focused creativity, how do I translate that into productivity? How do you spin wool into gold? There are a whole bunch of obvious answers to this—persistence, determination, perseverance. But I don’t care for these broadly applicable answers; I want something for myself.

The question remains: what magic thing does Joe need to learn about himself to overcome this creative slump he’s felt mired in for the last few years? Will writing about himself in the third person aid in any way? Does anyone even care? Will anyone even read this far? Tacos?