Full Moon over Texas

FullMoonFull Moon over Texas.

OffsetFullMoonIt was as yellow as a saucer of cream!

HeavyContrastMoonPlaying around with the contrast in this one. Gives an artificial and spooky look.

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Learning to Write: On Being Ruthless

“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.”   —William Faulkner, 1956

Faulkner

Faulkner

Margaret Mitchell said she would be invited out to dinner and decline because she knew she needed to stay home and write something called Gone With the Wind. Her friends didn’t understand this startling behavior. Why was she locking herself up in her house all the time? Didn’t she, you know, want to have fun? Isaac Asimov once claimed if he were forced to choose writing over family he would choose writing and never think about the decision again.

These stories, and others like them, may be apocryphal. I don’t know. But they showcase something a writer needs to develop which is a sense of ruthlessness and an unwillingness to compromise ourselves when it comes to our work.

My writing buddy and I have talked about this over many cups of coffee. I’ve discussed it with other writers and they agree. Ruthlessness, and a cultivation of same, is an important tool in our cabinet.

It’s not because we as writers are special. Trust me, we’re not. We ‘re no better than malandered mongrels pursued by our own set of scrabbling, inner demons. No, this doesn’t have anything to do with us. Writers, though part of the equation, are ultimately unimportant. Because if you don’t write that story someone else will.

It’s all about sacrifice to the story. The story is all. Writers are but Delphic Sibyls even at our best. Melville didn’t find Moby-Dick. That story found him.

Ruthlessness. I call it being a bastard which, many argue, is not a far step for me. I won’t belabor the point. Faulkner described it as a sense of ruthlessness. It’s the same thing.

Look, no one is going to understand you as a writer. Especially if they themselves are not writers. The only people who understand writers are other writers. Not because we’re so special, but because the only people who understand our demons are the people who carry the same demons.

So I argue don’t knock yourself out trying to make yourself understood to people who are unable to understand what drives you. You’re going to be disappointed and frustrated, and so are they when you are unable to find common ground.

Margaret Mitchell

Margaret Mitchell

I view this as damn near an inviolable commandment for writers, if any such exists. People will sometimes get in your way. Events in your life will happen that impinge on your writing. These things happen and we have no control over them. But we do have control over our writing and in that regard we must be ruthless and never compromise.

If we must tote up the board with old ladies, then so be it. No one else understands you. No one else gives a damn about your writing and they certainly aren’t going to write that story for you. The only person that matters when it comes to your writing is you. The only person who sets standards and goals when it comes to your writing is you.

Yes, you have to be ruthless. And that means you also must be ruthless with yourself. Other people may get in your way. If they do, push them aside, albeit gently. Their concerns and inability to understand what you are about, what drives you, pale in comparison to the art you are trying to create.

Push them aside. And while you’re at it, push aside the doubts and barriers within yourself that keep you from writing that story.

Compared to the story itself, and its need for life, writers, and everything else, are but motes.

Pictures from Presidio

A few pictures from my trip to the Border. These are from Presidio, TX

Mountains

Presidio

PatioRestaurantThis was a very good restaurant. Authentic Mexican cuisine. If you are even in Presidio, TX make sure you eat here.

MexicoHeaded into Mexico.

 

 

 

3 Writers Who Influenced Me Most

One of the things that interests me is how writers are influenced by other writers. I have thought about this a lot because I see other writers talk  about it. I got to wondering who influenced me the most as I was growing up and learning how to write.

I had a lot of favorites growing up. I marveled at the storytelling capability of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He wasn’t a great writer, but he was a good story teller and a favorite when I was in my teens. I also liked Nabakov a lot, mainly for his command of the English language and ability to push the envelope. I went through a big Ray Bradbury phase and liked his work, and tried to imitate him when I was eleven or twelve years old, but I don’t think he had any lasting impression upon me. In fact, I must admit today his work doesn’t speak to me at all in any understandable way. Which is amazing since he was such a favorite of mine at one time.

So the last couple of days I got to wondering who had really influenced me and why. I came up with three names.

Ian Fleming. This was my first big influence. I was introduced to his novels by my dad when I was around thirteen. By that time I One of the first big influences on my writing.was pretty sure I wanted to be a writer. I just didn’t know how to go about it. Fleming’s descriptive work had a big impact on me. I knew it was escapism, and some people said it was “only” escapism. I knew better. By then I was a much deeper reader than most people around me and I could see the themes he was working on.

Also, I was growing up at the time in an abusive household, so a writer like this who could take me away to a  time and place where violence was happening but you won out in the end…that made a deep philosophical impact on my life.

I often tried to write like Fleming. I like his style and what he can do with dialog. He’s best known for his iconic characters and villains, but his mastery at language, plot, characterization, it was all meat for my table. After reading Fleming I knew for certain I wanted to be a writer. There was no longer any doubt.

I would sit under our trailer during the day, enjoying what shade I could grab, and compose entire Flemingesque novels in my head. It was a heady time for me. I had been given a glimpse of a world where I could write stories that interested me and helped people forget their travails for a time.

What kind of writer would I be? Someone who could tell a story that transported you to another time and place and make you forget the mundane shitstorm that was ordinary life.

All right, fine. But how would I go about doing that? This was the part that worried me and I saw no way around it.

Ernest Hemingway. When I was in high school I read The Old Man and the Sea. I wasn’t captivated by it, nor did I think it was the best thing I had ever read. But I was astonished by the symbolism and the careful attention to detail he brought to the work, along with an economy of words. I talked to the English teacher about it afterward and she said he did those things on purpose. That floored me. I knew then this writing thing was a lot more difficult than putting words on paper. Anyone could do that. They’re called hacks. This was going to be work if I wanted to elevate writing into what I knew it was supposed to be: an art form. Fine, I thought. I’ll do what it takes to learn the things I need to know.

From then on I devoured pretty much everything Hemingway wrote. I have read A Farewell to Arms several times. It’s by far my favorite novel of his and one I plan to read again in the not too distant future. But as I studied and read Hemingway it wasn’t his style that had so much influence on me but his philosophy about life, and about writing itself. I remember one day I found a book that collected his old letters to contemporaries. Something like that was gold to a philosophically starving writer like myself.

As I studied Hemingway I learned about his views on symbolism. Yes, symbols were in his work, but he hadn’t put them there on purpose. If he had done it on purpose they would have lost resonance and power. He wasn’t stupid. He knew they were there and necessary to the story, but he hadn’t done it on purpose.

It took me a while to understand this concept, but I think I have a grasp on it today. It only took me about thirty years to understand. It’s one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s cabinet if he knows how to use it well.

One of the things Hemingway said still resonates with me. I wish it would resonate with more writers to  be quite honest. In an interview with The Paris Review Hemingway said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”

I live by that. I think all good writers should live by that if they want their work to be remembered. I think it speaks to something else I have blogged about and that is writing should not be safe. The safe story is never remembered. Nor should it expect to be.

I am not comparing myself to Hemingway, of course, but I have taken on this particular philosophy as my own. I think it works well both as an artistic tool and a method to maintain your sanity in this profession.

Hemingway

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”

To me Hemingway’s life reads and ends like a Greek tragedy in many respects. As someone who has suffered from depression I can relate to what he went through in many ways. No matter the venue I can never think of Hemingway without remembering the old Viking Death Chant:

Lo, there do I see my father.
Lo, there do I see my mother,
and my sisters and my brothers
Lo, there do I see the line of my people
back to the beginning.
Lo, they do call to me.
They bid me take my place among them
in the halls of Valhalla
where the brave may live forever.

I don’t know if Hemingway had those words in his thoughts before he died. But it would not surprise me. Either way, he is a definite and chartable influence upon my growth as a writer, lasting even today.

I think Hemingway also said good writers don’t talk about their work all that much. I believe that’s a good rule, more or less. What’s more important, the story you finished yesterday, or the one you will write today?

It’s an easy decision for me, too.

Henry Miller.  Now we come to the writer who, by far, had the biggest influence on me. Tropic of Cancer is without a Henry Miller was the greatest influence ever upon my growth as a writer.doubt my favorite novel. I discovered Miller when I was about nineteen or twenty, I think. I remember sitting in a washateria one Saturday afternoon waiting for my clothes to finish and reading Miller. It was a bright day and the sun streamed through the plate glass window. A guy walked past and saw what I was reading. He stopped and said, “Hey, Miller, cool.”

It was like a code. People who read Miller knew what it meant. We had been given keys into the insight of the human psyche. I loved Miller’s vocabulary and tried, and failed dismally, to use copy it in my own fiction at the time. But it was all a learning process.

What fascinated me most about Miller, and does today, was his unswerving attention to the truth, no matter who it irritated. And if they found his writing obscene and the actions he described grotesque, all the better, for humans were themselves obscene and grotesque, along with being noble. All you had to do was open a history book to be reminded of that fact.

Miller believed if you weren’t pissing someone off somewhere you weren’t trying very hard with your writing. I liked his honesty, his ability to look so deep within himself * and write with passion what he saw residing there without recoiling. That took character and courage and a deep belief in your ability as a writer to successfully pull it off. It is the one concept I take from him and try to live up to. I may fail at it. But I keep trying.

Miller, by far, had the greatest influence upon me, mainly from a philosophical point of view, but also through his fearless writing and his phenomenal ability to use language to make us think, and to move us. For Miller, obscenity was always a cleansing process.

I think he, more than anyone else I ever read, helped develop my current philosophy that stories should never, never be safe. Because if they are, you not only attenuate yourself, but literature as an art form.

*Nietzsche claimed “When you look into the abyss, it looks into you.” Nietzsche had an influence upon my life, perhaps more than any philosopher. But his influence was more philosophical, not from a writing perspective. Although, unlike many philosophers, his writing is easier to grasp and understand and has an accessibility which evades his contemporaries.

My Elevator Pitch for the New Haxan Novel “Quaternity” and Other Philosophical Arguments on Recursive Genre

*Press elevator stop button. Cage jerks to a halt.*

“I can sum the novel up pretty fast. Jorge Luis Borges said man will one day resign himself to new abominations, and that soon only bandits and soldiers will be left. Which is why I’m going to beat the living shit out of you right now.”

*   *   *

Thus, Quaternity.

But this crazy scenario does represent in a stark and frightening way what the novel is all about: the ever-present actuality of man’s violent nature and its necessary place in history. A nature, the book argues, which will never be ameliorated by man himself because it is not in man’s interest to do so, nor is it his fundamental nature to be able to do so, outliers like Gandhi, MLK, and the Prophet Jesus laid aside.

As I remarked before in this blog, Quaternity is unlike anything I have ever written before. I set the bar very high for this novel not only on a literary level but thematically. Of course I don’t go into these arguments within the novel’s context or as story. It would make the damn thing nigh unreadable and pretentious beyond human reason. And, quite frankly, we have enough epidemically overrated books in our midst to last us through the remainder of the decade, and quite possibly the century.

But if I were to say these elements were not present in the story I would also be lying, and I’m not going to do that. They are there if you want to find them. If not, they won’t impact the rest of the novel one bit.

Whether I reached the mark I aimed for remains for readers to decide. If it ever gets published, and if there ever are readers.

I don’t pull any punches in this novel. I am loyal to the historical record. This is who these ruthless people were, and not the sanitized and whitewashed (in all respects of that word) romantic history we have been spoon fed by John Ford and Owen Wister and others.*

I have said before I wanted this novel to stand as an anti-western. But now that I have distance from the story I think I can more specifically say,

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

and with justification, it’s an anti-mythology western.

Not that I am dinging on westerns in particular. Like all other recursive literary genres westerns incorporate semiotic elements which make them immediately recognizable to the reading public. Science fiction has a long and storied history in this regard. This isn’t debilitative to a genre if it’s handled correctly, and if a writer has a natural respect for a genre’s history and its canonical themes and the foundations that were laid down  by other writers. Even science fiction, which by all accounts is at heart a subversive genre, adheres to some of these principles today, at least from time to time. Although, I guess we have to accept that many of them were lost during the New Wave Movement in SF. A movement that was necessary because SF themes had become so incestuous and moribund there had to be a spurt of literary growth or the entire genre would collapse into smoking slag.

But the old themes and cliches were never really lost to us, even though they had been put aside by writers with dangerous visions like Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Joanna Russ, and John Brunner. Later, they were rediscovered, revived, and thrust again into public consciousness via the Star Wars trilogies.

Again, it doesn’t dilute the field if handled with respect. Which, to be fair, most writers do. I may not hold George Lucas’s writing talent in the highest regard, but I do recognize the fact he had a deep love and respect for science fiction’s past, hoary cliches and all.

I simply maintain there are other writers too lazy or too inept to see the difference which half an hour of homework and research would correct. Google exists today for a reason. But so did Encyclopedia Britannica twenty years ago. I know because I bought a set and I still have it.

Writers who reinvent the wheel and then put their work up as if it’s new and different, when really it’s nothing more than recursive cliches posing as plot devices, hurt growth. Genres, like people, are organic. They must grow and evolve, or wither and die. Writing the same thing over and over doesn’t do any good. Let’s make them grow.

So, all else aside, I obviously cannot use the elevator pitch I started this blog with. So what is the story about? Simply put, it’s about a ten thousand year old demon man who is trying to find himself in a world he cannot understand.

Sometimes, Occam’s razor is the best starting place after all. 🙂

 

*It is to their everlasting credit creative directors like Bud Boetticher, Clint Eastwood, and Sam Peckinpah, along with robust writers like Edward Gorman and Loren D. Estleman have worked to correct this fault.

Long Week Finally Has a Good Ending

Yesterday I learned The Western Online accepted a short story of mine. This was a nice end to a pretty awful week and I needed some good news. I’m glad they liked it and I look forward to appearing in their magazine soon.

It’s a new Haxan story in which I tried to do something a little different. Apropos of my earlier post in which I talked about writing outside your comfort zone. Now I’ve got the weekend ahead of me and I’m going to be busy with personal stuff, but I will try to get back to this blog on Monday and post updated material.

I didn’t make it to MidSouthCon this weekend even though I planned to attend. I wasn’t out any money but I had to make the decision whether I would go this year, and decided to stay home and take care of stuff. I never bought the preregistration in time anyway, so all I had to do was cancel a hotel reservation. I will pencil in this convention for next year, though. Meanwhile, I need to get registered for other SF/F conventions coming up this summer.

Rio Frio Photographs

I enjoyed the scenery when I visited Rio Frio. Here is another set of photographs. Hope you enjoy them! 🙂

Squirrel

 

Trees

 

ArchandTree

 

Arches

Bluff

 

On Pushing Your Writing Beyond Safe Boundaries

A writer friend of mine, Sandra Wickham, was trying to brainstorm ideas and found herself, in her own words, “floundering.” She wondered aloud if people had any tips on how to dig deep for a big idea.

I expect she got lots of good advice, because if writers have anything in over abundance it’s advice. Myself included. But, here is what I told her:

“Take chances. Push the envelope. Think outside the areas you are comfortable in and imagine what makes you uncomfortable.”

This fits in with my own philosophy about writing. I don’t believe in playing it safe when it comes to writing. I don’t know if that has ever been part of my makeup when it comes to writing, but it may have been early on before I wised up. I grew up a big Henry Miller fan and he was a huge inspiration to me when I started to write in a serious way. You can’t delve into Miller and come away with the thought process that your writing should be dull and uninspiring. You may not like Miller, but you can’t argue he ever played it safe.

Remember Marathon Man, that movie with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier? There’s a chilling scene where Hoffman is asked over and over again by Olivier, “Is it safe? Is it safe?

As a writer I believe you should ask yourself the same question about every story you write. If the answer to any part of the story is Yes, it is safe…then you should probably pass it by unless you have a very good reason not to.

Here’s the reason. Let other writers write those safe stories. You need to concentrate on thinking outside the envelope and pushing past your comfort zone. It’s easy to write the same story over and over. But here’s the problem. Many other writers are already doing that. So you might as well take a chance and break out of that mold.

Sandra also mentioned in a conversation that she felt if she were a “real writer” she should have lots more ideas waiting to be written. As someone who has done this a long time I know from personal experience it’s not the number of ideas you have, it’s the quality.

And the quality comes, I believe, when you push yourself and try to work outside your comfort zone.

Some years back I used to train in Shotokan Karate. I got pretty good at it and was a final test away from getting my brown belt. But as I trained I learned it benefited me more to practice the things I wasn’t really good at more than the things I could do well. Writing is the same. There are probably many things about writing you can do well. So you need to work on your weaknesses instead. This is the mark of a good writer. This is the mark of a writer who grows.

Writing is hard enough without making it more difficult. A lot of these things come with experience and a belief in yourself. You gain a levels of trust and confidence within yourself as you advance. As you write and publish more stories you will become more secure in your abilities to take on new problems. Your writing will get better, and readers will definitely respond.

Or, you could write the same old safe story over and over again. You know. Like a lot of other people are doing.

Writing is an art form. Like all art you can be part of a crowd or break out. I once half-joked with another writer that if you’re not ticking someone off you are doing something wrong. But I was only half-joking, I think. Or, maybe, knowing me deep down, not joking at all.

I’m not saying it’s easy. I probably don’t succeed myself half the time. But the point is I try. And when I fail, I keep trying because the only other option is to play it safe.

That, more than anything else, is really what separates writers.

“Is it safe?”

On Writing: Production vs. Content

I’ve been struggling with production lately. I keep thinking I am not doing as much as I should, which is crazy, because by any metric I am pretty writer-angstbusy.

I have a lot planned for this year. I think part of the problem is January was pretty much a wasted month. But I haven’t been lax since then. I’ve been pretty steady in writing, getting new stuff ready, research, conventions, planning another novel, editing. The entire gamut.

But I think the problem comes when I compare what I have done so far with what I want to accomplish this year. Which is a mistake, because it’s like comparing what you have done in an hour when you have an entire day yet to go.

I think part of this is something many professional writers experience at one time or another. We tend to recognize the profession is a marathon, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to sprint when we can. Of course I could always do more each day, but sometimes I worry about the trade off between getting a lot done quickly or taking my time and doing it well.

I believe the latter is the better road. But that doesn’t mean I don’t worry I am not doing enough.

If a couple of little things fall through the cracks this year I won’t obsess over it. I want to get the major points accomplished, though, if I can.

 

Later: After I wrote this post I edited two stories and sent one off to a magazine to be considered for publication. So I have gotten some things done. But the overall way I feel is still the same. If I don’t keep this up I really will fall behind, even though I do have a year to accomplish my goals. But, as of right now, things are going a little better than I previously feared. 

My “Working” Trip to Rio Frio

While staying at Rio Frio last week I began the final edit on the Haxan prequel novel, Quaternity. I began making notes for the novel when I was staying at Palo Duro two years ago. I might as well cap off the work while camping alongside a western river in Texas, right?

Meanwhile, I also took pictures.

These are a few from the first day I was there. Hope you like them.

Cabin

 

Inside Cabin

 

Water

 

I thought this tree provided an interesting contrast against the sky.

 

I thought this was a pretty reflectiona and tried to capture it.

The Old West: A Study in Black and White Photography

Some black and white photographs I took around Presidio, TX.  Black and white photography works best when you have good contrast between  light and shadow. That’s what I was working for here. Hope you like them! 🙂

Old Fence

Old Fence

Elephant Rock

Elephant Rock

Abandoned House

Abandoned House

White Church

White Church

Adobe Church Window

Adobe Church Window

I’ll post more pictures as I process them. The trip to Presidio via Rio Frio was a big success, and I have lots to share about it. 🙂

Segovia’s Master Class

Wanted to share this video with you. As you know I am learning classical guitar. I found this video of Segovia’s master class back in the day. Believe it or not something like this is very helpful to a student learning CG. It’s not only the historical perspective, but as a student I can watch their fingers and how they hold the guitar, etc.

Especially for those tricky barre chords!

I geek out over stuff like this. Enjoy. 🙂

 

First Pictures from my Photography Class!

Here are several photographs I took during class. Still learning about the camera, and how to manipulate all the controls it offers me. Hope you like them!

Coming Home

Coming Home

Follow the Leader

Follow the Leader

 

Reflection

Reflection

 

 

Writers with Angst Line Up Here

I am headed to the Frio River this weekend for a camping trip. Well, I’m staying in a cabin, so it’s sort of like camping, right? I will be starting the third edit of the new Haxan novel, but I may start the new novel as well. I’d like to get a chapter or two under my belt and see how it shapes up.

There is a lot of research to do for the hobo novel, but I am eager to start dabbling.

I have been a little put out lately with myself. I feel I am not getting enough done. I am a little haggard due to some sinus trouble, but that seems to be passing. I have big plans for the year and I’ve gotten some of that done, so I should not be so put out with myself. I can’t help it. Sometimes writing is like that. The only person who can hold you accountable is yourself. No one else cares. You have to do it. I really am making steady progress. I have to learn you can’t do everything in one day. I need to learn a lesson from that. You’d think I would have by now.

This trip is a chance for me to decompress and rest. I’m looking forward to it. I’ll play with my new camera and with luck I can find Internet access and post updates for you. Depending on how I feel I may try a quick trip south to the border for a little more research opportunity. I’m also taking my guitar so I can practice.

Catch you on the flip side!

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