What do stories want?

Well, I wrote half a paragraph the day before yesterday. Only an exercise from Steering the Craft, because it would be pretty lame for me to read the book and not to do the exercises. I also wrote a review today, because I had to. Not “had to” as in someone was making me, but “had to” as in felt the need as the human thing which happens to live in my skin. So maybe I’m getting back to normal. It doesn’t hurt that someone just sent me money for a poem. At least I’m no longer mentally screaming “I hate writing!” every time I look at my laptop.

A couple weeks ago something inside my head just… I don’t want to say “snapped.” More like my desire to write abruptly committed suttee. Yes, I’d just gotten a disappointing rejection, but that only struck the match. The gasoline came came from the mounting feeling that it’s impossible for me to make any sort of progress, because I don’t write the kind of stories that get published. This feeling came from reading a whole lot of professionally published spec-fiction stories and really, really hating them. It’s like, if I can’t even navigate this stuff as a reader, how am I ever going to write it?

Some things I find hard to accept:

1) Many stories seem to go out of their way to confuse people. I love mystery, misdirection, figurative language, metaphor, and all that other good stuff. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about stories where the narration jumps around, as if you were looking through a jerky camera held by some self-important undergrad film student. I don’t mind being a little confused for the first page or two of a story, but I do not like having the rug pulled out from under me every time I start to find my footing. If I’m still confused by the end of a story, it just makes me feel stupid. I get the distinct impression that’s half the point of some of the professionally published stories I read.

2) Many stories are cold and nasty and violent without reason. I understand the world is full of nastiness. But to me, the purpose of filling a story with darkness is to explore that darkness, not wallow in it. Virtually every set of submission instructions warns writers not to include erotic or violent elements unless they have a purpose in the story. Okay, fine. Yet often, when I read the stories these publications actually put out, I find pieces that are plenty erotic and plenty violent, yet seem to have no real purpose at all. What conclusion is possible but that darkness is loved for its own sake?

3) Many stories aren’t very imaginative. I’m fine with deep characterization (though the phrase “character-driven” is starting to get on my nerves). But if that’s pretty much all there is to a story, how is it speculative? In several of the Nebula nominees I read, I had a hard time finding any speculative element. These were stories I enjoyed, for the most part; I just didn’t see how they fit into the field. Much worse are stories that use the same well-worn ideas over and over. Established writers, especially, do this. All the time. They either retread whatever sci-fi or fantasy elements that are currently being passed around from author to author and magazine to magazine, or else cannibalize their own ideas by writing the same type of story over and over.

I don’t think I’m capable of writing things I wouldn’t want to read; I’d be miserable even trying. I do enjoy writing for its own sake, to some extent, but it’s an awful lot of work. Is it worthwhile to draft, edit, and polish words just to print them on toilet paper and flush?

Maybe so. I don’t really know what to think. Writing it down helps some.

Oh, give that here and let me do it.

There’s a thread at Codex called “When do I give up on writing?”, but it’s lame. It turns out to be all about not quitting. About dealing with adversity, and perseverance, and putting on your Big Girl Pants and giving it one more try.

One post says to stop writing if you have something else you’re more passionate about doing. Lord knows I do. I want to watch television and drink. It won’t be easy. I have to get a TV. It’s complicated. I think you can’t anymore just buy one and plug it in; there’s some little box thing you have to use if you don’t have cable. Probably I should just get cable anyway. Then you have to decide what to watch, but that’s easy because I remember about the drinking part from when I was younger. Jack Daniels and Bacardi were both pretty good. Tequila too, unless maybe Bacardi is tequila? I don’t think so. Oh yeah, and Korbel. Korbel was good. Anyway, start pumping those down and you can just turn on the TV and be good with whatever. There’s also this show called Breaking Bad which is a relatively new thing, only I think not so new that it isn’t already over. I could watch that. But I’m sure there are all kinds of shows that are still on that would be better than writing. I could buy a TV Guide, if they still make those. And if none of that works out, pretty soon it’ll be football season.

If you google “quit writing,” there’s really nothing. Good reasons to “quit” writing they talk about are things like giving the story time to settle, or taking time for friends and family. Bullshit. That’s not quitting at all!

Even Writing.com has that motto, “Keep writing!” Expressed, preferably, with lots of (((hugs))) or whatever. Just another imperative to control you, like “Show, don’t tell!” or “Cheer up!” or “Stop picking your nose!” You nod your head guiltily until no one’s looking.

No one needs to keep writing. There’s bazillions of good reasons to stop.

- Everybody writes. People who don’t ever read are all like, “Hey, guess what, I’m writing a book!”

- Writing is very, very, very, very, very hard work, and at the end of it you’re lucky to see a cent.

- Nobody really gives a shit what you have to say.

- Underpaid/unpaid slush readers really don’t need another manuscript of yours to wade through.

- Form rejections shit all over your self esteem.

- Those other writing people deserve a chance. Writing less does them a favor.

- Writing is old-school. Pretty soon we’ll all have holographic glasses.

- Books and stories have no value. Anyone who, for some reason, still likes to read can get all the reading material they want for free. Here in Madison, for example, we have Little Free Libraries. Not Little Free Gas Stations, or Little Free Jewelry Shops, or Little Free Pizza Parlors. Only books are so worthless.

- What kind of hobby serves no purpose but to inform you how badly you suck?

- The world is full of thousands of better and less selfish things.

I can’t do this anymore. I can’t stand it anymore. Any word I write is just another banshee shrieking through my brain.

Crack of Doom

Today I served a woman with a cigarette lighter poking out of her cleavage. Another regular stashes a roll of hundreds. Lots and LOTS of women buy crystals destined for the twin towers. (“Would you like a bag?” “Nope, don’t need one!” [Plop!])

Kind of makes me wonder if anyone just uses their bra for boobs.

Crash! Bang! Meow!

We had sirens around midnight. Kid B and I were trying to figure out what was going on. A pretty intense thunderstorm was coming through, but no wind to speak of. The power would go out, then go back on again. I couldn’t get the weather to come up on the internet. Well, I didn’t try all that hard. Since everything looked okay, I went back to bed, and just lay there and listened to it for a while.

Then this morning I went for a run down by the lake, and, dang! I must have seen a dozen whole trees down, either broken off near the bottom or uprooted. Plus quite a few large branches, one of which had taken out the corner of someone’s roof. The homeowner was outside talking to a neighbor about homeowner’s insurance, so I guess everyone was okay. In some places everything looked fine, while in other places everything was a mess of downed power lines and trees and neighbors standing around talking.

All of this was between half a mile and about three miles from my house. I’m pretty sure a tornado actually touched down. Meanwhile in our neighborhood, everything’s neat and tidy.

On my run and subsequent trip to the doctor, I saw:

- A building blown down. The roof had slid off, pulling the walls down with it. It was a printing business in an old corrugated metal building.
– A trampoline (not a little kiddie one, a big one with a mesh cage) blown 50 yards into a park
– A car with a tree on top of it
– Uprooted power poles
– One power pole that had broken in half
– A streetlight sticking sideways out of the shrubs in someone’s yard
– Three park playgrounds with equipment destroyed by trees
– Four stretches of street blocked off so workers could untangle downed power lines from the wreckage
– A public canoe storage rack blown into the lake
– At one home, all the old house paint had somehow blown out of a storage area and into the street, and some of the cans had dumped into the gutter.

So, that was something.

And yeah, I did have to go to the doctor. I usually stay away from those kind of people. But I was brushing Scarlett yesterday and must have hit a bad spot, because she turned around and bit my hand. My right ring finger got a nasty gash, the pinky just a nick. But a few hours later I noticed the pinky swelling. So now I’m on antibiotics.

The doctor, who seemed to be a very nice and competent lady, says you don’t mess around with cat bites. Cats have a number of nasty things in their mouths that love to infect humans.

I seem to be able to type okay, but other things I use my hands for may be difficult, especially writing with a pen.

Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin

There are three men banging away at my roof right now. They’ve been at it for two days, and it doesn’t really look like they’re going to be done today either. This is obviously going to cost more than they quoted me. It could be a lot more. One of them, the leader, has a really scary mouth. His gums and lips are red and puffed up, so swollen they merge into each other. He says there’s a lot more wrong with my roof than what they’re fixing. He makes a red smile when he says that, even though it looks painful.

It’s very noisy – lots of banging, sawing, and strange noises I can’t identify. At one point I heard a crash, and it was a glass light fixture in the dining room falling on the floor. I don’t know why it didn’t break. I’m just glad I wasn’t sitting at the table when it happened.

At least they didn’t laugh at me about the roof repair that guy did last summer. I deserve to be laughed at for hiring that loser. That was so stupid I should lose my job, get kicked out of both Codex and Wyrm, and have my children taken away from me. If they weren’t both adults, anyway. But someone should come and take away my cats. Maybe impound my bicycle.

I kept working on store stuff for an extra hour I won’t get paid for, because I can’t concentrate on anything I really want to do with people up there. I know it’s stupid, but I just want them to go away. I don’t like strangers on my roof.

My cat is stalking me.

I was lying in bed and heard a THUNK against the door. This is a door you can open by pushing on it, without using the doorknob. Lately Mike has taken to bumping it open so he can get into my closet and sleep in a basket in there, usually knocking a bunch of stuff down in the process. I don’t encourage him to do this, but a lot of times I’m reading or writing and too preoccupied to deal with him.

Anyway, I was trying to sleep when Mike thunked his way in. I got up, tossed him out the door, closed it, and fastened the little deadbolt latch at the top. I could hear him thunking against it some more, even running down the hallway to thunk it harder, but I went back to sleep anyway.

When I woke up, he was back in the room again, having somehow made a hole in the door. When I unlatched and opened it, I saw he’d somehow brought a chair into the hallway outside. He must have climbed up onto the chair and clawed his way in. I covered up the hole with newspaper, sheet plastic and duck tape. I tried to get back to sleep, but of course it was no good. As I lay in bed, I could hear Mike rip through the paper and plop back down onto the floor of my room.

I’ve been dreaming more than I used to–once every couple weeks or so. Usually I only remember snatches and impressions, but this time it was freakishly realistic. When I woke up for real, I was surprised to find my door wasn’t even latched. I couldn’t stop looking for the hole, the chair, the cat-shredded newspaper.

Iditarod 42

This year’s race is why I love this thing.

Coming into White Mountain, the last big stop before the final 80ish-mile stretch into Nome, the first four positions were held by:

1. Jeff King, a 58-year-old guy with four Iditarod victories going back to 1981. A native of Northern California, he grew up close to Jack London’s house, now a historical museum. I used to visit there when I was a kid, too. He read everything by London, got himself up to Alaska as soon as he could manage it, and never looked back. He’s a very friendly guy, cracking jokes while he welcomes visitors to his kennel for tours. If he wins, he’ll be the oldest winner in Iditarod history.

2. Aliy Zirkle, a woman in her mid-forties, who finished second in both 2012 and 2013. She and her husband, Allen Moore, run a kennel and share the dogs (Or “dawgs,” as they’re universally called in mushing. It’s not a regional thing; mushers say “dawgs” whether they’re from Arkansas, California or Canada.): he runs the A team in the Yukon Quest, the other big annual mushing event of the year (which he’s won the past two years), and she gets them for the Iditarod. Aliy may be the most beloved musher of all time — she’s got a beautiful personality, is insanely in love with her dogs, and knows how to rock Facebook. If she wins, she’ll be the first female winner since Susan Butcher won in 1990.

3. Dallas Seavey, a 27-year old guy born into a mushing family, who won in 2012, making him the youngest winner ever. In 2013 he came in fourth running rookie puppies (not sure whether they were his dad’s or his own), which is just unheard of; top ten positions usually go to teams of veteran dogs, while the young dogs take it easy and get the hang of the trail. Dallas has his own kennel now, and it’s a strong one. Dallas, a former Olympic wrestler, is pretty strong himself. He’s known for mushing in running shoes, the better to run alongside his sled, to make things easier for the dogs.

4. Mitch Seavey, 54, Dallas’ dad. Mitch won in 2013, his second victory and eleventh top-ten finish. His dad was a musher, and all four of his sons are mushers. The Iditarod is pretty much what he does, and he does it awfully well.

So, they came into White Mountain in those positions, with something like an hour or two between them. There’s a required eight-hour stop at White Mountain. Usually, whoever gets there first wins the race. So Jeff took off an hour before Aliy as the presumed winner.

Boy, that would have been boring.

The route from White Mountain to Nome goes along the coast, part of it along a spit of land with water on both sides. It rained recently, so everything is covered with lumpy ice. The whole trail has been like that, and mushers have been dealing with slipping sleds, injured dogs, and crashes all week. Along the coast, the ice is interspersed with driftwood. Snow machines (as snowmobiles are called in Alaska) clear the trail and put down markers one time before the race; there’s no further maintenance to the trail. As it happens, this time, the lead mushers are running the final stretch at night.

The winds along that coast can be fierce, but this year they’re worse than usual, blowing at 45 miles per hour and gusting up to around 70. This is on ice, remember, with water on both sides. There’s just enough snow to blow all over the place and ruin what little visibility there was to begin with. The actual temperature is somewhere around zero, never mind the wind chill.

Jeff has a malfunction, and has to stop to fix it a few miles before getting to the halfway-to-Nome checkpoint called Safety. His dogs hunker down while he’s doing this, and by the time he’s ready to go they’re too cold to move. He puts his sleeping bag over them, lies there holding them, waiting for the wind to die down a little. But the wind remains lethal. He figures he’ll walk to Safety alone, maybe carry the dogs in one by one, but it’s just too cold; the dogs are in danger of freezing to death. He ends up accepting a ride from a snow machine to Safety so he can get help for the dogs faster, which disqualifies him from the race. The snow machines are blowing over too, and one rider gets blown off towards the water, but everyone survives. When he gets back to his dogs he’s just relieved to find them all still alive.

Meanwhile, Aliy has passed Jeff and his team without seeing them. She’s too busy getting beat up by the wind herself. It keeps whipping the sled sideways on the ice, which pulls the dogs off-course, and puts everyone in danger of getting blown into open water. Somehow she makes it into Safety and finds out she’s in the lead, but at that point she’s more concerned about keeping herself and her dogs from dying than with winning the race. She gets her dogs as comfortable as possible, then goes inside the roadhouse to drink coffee and wait out the wind.

She waits at Safety long enough that Dallas catches up. He doesn’t stop. He doesn’t even wait around long enough to find out he’s in the lead. Why? Because his dad’s behind him, and the last thing he wants is to lose to his dad. So he lets the vets have their required look at his dogs, then takes off out of there like he’s being chased by demons.

Aliy figures if Dallas made it through, the weather must have improved. It’s still brutal out there, but the winds have died down some from hurricane force. She takes off in pursuit of Dallas.

Dallas is running this thing like a maniac. He sees a light right behind him now and figures it’s his dad’s headlamp. Somehow his dad has caught up to him, he thinks, which means the old man must be running his dogs at an incredible pace. He’s going to get caught up at any minute, and he can’t let that happen.

At the finish line, Dallas comes into Nome running alongside his sled, looking over his shoulder as he sprints down the street and under the burled arch. As he catches his breath and goes to take care of his dogs, he’s still asking if he beat his dad. As far as he knows, Jeff and Aliy came in hours ago, and are sitting around somewhere enjoying hot soup while their handlers treat their dogs to steak dinners. It takes more than a minute for the finish line crew to convince him he’s won the race — in record time, at that.

A couple minutes later, Aliy comes in second. She made up some time on Dallas, lord only knows how, but not enough. An hour or two later, Mitch comes in third.

That. Is what I call a race.

Spring (or at least March)

You can tell spring is coming — the quality of the snow is different. It’s icier now, less flaky.

Actually, it got above freezing yesterday and the day before. Monday I think it got up to 50, warm enough to have the door open at work. It’s nice to have the fresh air, and the open door helps draw in customers.

Sometimes I’m not sure it’s worth it. The customers it brings in tend to be people just wandering around enjoying the warm weather; they don’t even necessarily have any money on them. One guy came in who appeared to be a homeless guy. He had all the teeth on the upper left quarter, all the teeth on the lower right, but not much else, dentally speaking. Alcohol on his breath, and he sort of reeked. It was early evening, and I was in the store alone.

He held out his hand and showed me two pennies. “Somebody gave me these. Any chance you could spare a little more?”

I emptied the penny dish into his hands, quadrupling his net worth. “There you go. Good luck to you.”

He thanked me profusely, but wasn’t in a hurry to leave. “I get paid tomorrow, then I’m going to come in and buy a couple rings. I want one with an OM and a pentacle. Maybe you could fit me for those now and put them aside?”

For somebody else I’d do it, but I’m not about to keep this drunk in the store any longer than I have to. “Nah, why don’t you just come back tomorrow and we’ll do it then.”

“Well, okay.”

“‘Bye now. And keep your eyes on the ground, with the snow melting and everything. I found thirty-five cents this morning.”

“That’s true. Hey, guess what I found on the ground this morning.”

The possibilities are endless. “What did you find?”

“Take a look at this.” He pulled a gun out of his jacket and set it on the counter.

I don’t know much about guns. It was black, and looked real enough to me. Like a pistol. I picked it up, thinking it would be light and plasticky like a toy gun, but it wasn’t. It was cold and heavy. “What is this?”

“It’s a CO2 gun.”

I’d never heard of a CO2 gun before, except for paintball markers, and the ones of those I’ve seen are larger, rifle-shaped and often colorful — and plainly are not real. I looked it up later and found out there is such a thing as a pistol-shaped CO2, but I’m still not sure what you’d want one for. Especially downtown, which I’m assuming is where a homeless guy would find it. It looked like the kind of thing you’d carry if you wanted people to think you had a gun, but didn’t want to get in trouble for carrying a real one.

“We actually don’t allow guns in the store. I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.”

Yeah, good luck on that one. He kept talking for another five minutes, while I kept trying to politely but firmly get him out the door. Drunks don’t respond well to tact, but I didn’t want the guy mad at me.

Finally he left, and no harm done, but I wonder if I should have called the police or something. The whole thing was a little weird.

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Pawprints in the Snow

pawprintsIt’s snowed the last three nights, and every morning when I go out to shovel there are cat tracks in the snow. They always follow the same route: in through the fence at the back corner of the lot, over some drifts (about a foot and a half tall, but iced up enough to walk on), along the compost-pile path, alongside the garage and up the back steps, back down the steps and around the corner past the trash and recycling bins, down the path shoveled along the driveway, hopping up into the planter with the yews against the front of the house, hopping further up to the front porch, then down the front steps and away down the sidewalk.

I haven’t heard Mike yowling at anyone out there recently, though he doesn’t go out as much in winter, and I definitely don’t encourage him to stay out all night when it’s cold. If it’s twenty below he doesn’t want to be out there anyway, but if it’s ten above or better I sometimes have to chase him down and bring him back in the house. Anyway, he’d notice a strange cat on his turf even if he were in the house. So maybe it’s a buddy of his.

Or – and this is what I keeps me thinking about it – maybe it’s Ariel.

We adopted the two as kittens from Friends of Ferals. We think they’re littermates, though it’s possible Ariel is older and just naturally small. Mike’s a big Jethro Bodine of a cat, none too bright but plenty friendly. He couldn’t wait to be somebody’s house pet, as long as wandering privileges were included in the deal. (With him, my self-imposed pledge to keep my cats house-only went literally right out the door. With some cats it just ain’t gonna happen.) He’s a big black bear of a thing, likes to sit on your lap on top of the newspaper, let you play soccer with him, enjoys mauling mice, etc.

Ariel wasn’t having any of the whole pet thing. She was a skinny little thing, mostly black, but with white paws and a white diamond at her throat. I really liked her; she still had a lot of feral in her, and I sort of admired that. She spent the first week at our house hiding out in the heat ducts, and occasionally taking a dainty bite or two of the food we left for her in the basement. After that first week she’d come upstairs and hang with Mike, but she never was a people cat.

One of the first times we found her upstairs, she and Mike were raiding the bread cabinet. They’d hopped up on the countertop and dragged a few loaves of bread down, torn open the plastic, and were eating some of it and making a huge mess of the rest. That was kind of funny, but most of the time she just ran away when anyone was around. Somebody else might have had the patience to do better with her than I did.

Anyway, one day in summer, Ariel was outside with Mike. They never used to leave the back yard. But this time, Mike came back and Ariel never did. We never saw her again, but at that point I felt like trying to hang onto her as a pet was hopeless anyway. Mike was out there constantly for a couple days, crying and trying to find her, but as far as I could tell he never had any luck. The only consolation was knowing she was spayed.

But with this new cat coming around, I just wonder. Maybe Ariel stayed close. There are all kinds of places around here where a cat could stay incognito. I’d be happy to know she was still alive.

You don’t even need to be Jesus


madison in februaryThis is what I love about the upper midwest: If you try walking on water in California, they laugh at you; here, they just figure you’ve got your dog out there somewhere.  Because if you’ve got a dog, there’s nothing better than a frozen lake.

(Well, maybe a frozen lake with a dead fish in the middle of it. For rolling, ya know.)

I don’t actually have a dog anymore (sniff), but I still like going out on the lake a couple times a year.

It was cold enough today that I even put my hood up. I’ve had this winter jacket for three or four years now, and I don’t think I’ve ever put up the hood. I hate things around my face–it’s got to be pretty damn cold before I’ll wear a hat or a scarf, and don’t even start with me about jewelry. But you get out there on that lake ice and there’s nothing to stop the wind.

I think about California all the time, about how much I miss the ocean. But if I ever went back, I think I’d miss winter more.