Silencing the Voices Long Enough to Read

February 4th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

I wrote this long crazy post about Mohists, but’s running it now, which is great!  On the other hand, it leaves me sans a load-bearing post.

So, let’s do some housekeeping:

1. I have a Boskone schedule!  It’s posted on the events page!

2. Full Fathom Five ended up on the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2014, along with a whole bunch of other books you should read.  Everything I’ve read on here is amazing.  Also there’s a Locus Reader’s Poll, apparently.

3. The new issue of Lightspeed features a novella by Brooke Bolander, which I haven’t had the time to read yet but heard her read excerpts from at ReaderCon last year, and I’m excited to have the whole thing waiting for me in my e-reader when I finish chewing my way through these Shanghai history books for SEKRET PROJEKT.

4. On a similar note, I’m really excited for the new issue of Uncanny Magazine, featuring short fiction by Amal El-Mohtar and Ann Leckie!

I’ve been reading a lot recently—non-screen, long-form, bound-book reading.  This may sound weird or elementary for a professional writer to say, but, folks, reading’s great.  I am transported.  I explore strange new worlds.  I seek out new life and new civilizations—I mean, yes, that’s Star Trek, but it’s also my reading life.  There’s a reason LeVar Burton is the guy who makes the Enterprise go.

Part of the reason I read less than I did when I was in high school & college, I realized recently, is that back then I tended to read until someone Of Higher Stature flat out told me to stop reading.  “Time for dinner!”  Or, I had to get to class.  Or,  etc.  The key here is, whenever I wasn’t affirmatively required to be doing something, I by default sank into a book.

Adulthood, or something like adulthood, has put the kibosh on that strategy.  Nobody requires me to do anything any more.  Hell, I’m a full-time writer; I could just stay at home in my PJs all day eating gummy bears and watching Cartoon Network and only a handful of people would even know until the whole system crashed down in flames around me.  But in order to earn adulthood I had to learn how to require myself to do things.  I had to internalize the need to take out the trash, cook, shop for groceries, work out, clean the bathroom, to sit down and work even when I really don’t want to.  In the halcyon days of yore, I had to do what people told me to, but only that.  These days, few people tell me to do anything—because I’ve built all these systems that make sure there’s food on the table, the house isn’t falling down, the sink hasn’t gone sentient, etc.  Some of those are real systems, GTD style.  Some of those are background processes.

If I start reading and really let myself go, I can read for hours at a stretch.  And since I know that, I’m careful—and for years I did the reading equivalent of constantly myclonic-twitching awake just before you hit REM sleep. I’d never let myself go, because I was always calling to myself from inside my own head: “time to make dinner!  Time to clean the bathroom!  Time to sweep!  Time to take all that stuff to the post office that you’ve been putting off for the last two weeks!  And shouldn’t you get started on your tax paperwork?”

Recently, and this’ll seem stupidly straightforward to you all, I’ve started setting a timer.  I can decide, for forty-five minutes at a time, that I want to read.  That’s how I want to spend this bit of leisure.  Kitchen and bathroom and dust and junk piles and emergency emails will still be there after forty-five minutes.

But for those forty-five minutes, I’m gone.

It’s great.

Also, I’m trying to read more broadly.  A friend of mine last year read only books by women, which I admired but can’t quite emulate because I want to stay caught up on my friends’ books, and not all my friends are women.  So for months now I’ve been working to make sure I don’t read two books by straight white cis men in a row.  Now, this sort of approach has its own issues (for one thing, it can, in its failure mode, sort of norm straight white cis-dudes, and by extension it plays into the whole problematic “feminine-Other” association a la Said), but so far it’s been great.  This process hasn’t changed my normal reading habits much, to be honest, but it has encouraged me to prospect for new authors and break out of hegemonic ruts.  And, it’s helped me spot uncomfortable subconscious biases.  (“James Baldwin’s amazing! Why didn’t I read him before now?  …. Oh.  Oh.  Well, shit.”)

Aaaaanyway.  Books are great.  Reading is fun!  Be well.

Birdman! Also, Last First Snow Preorder!

January 21st, 2015 § 2 comments § permalink

Hello friends!  First, your weekly dose of the strange: Birdman’s Oscar nods last week prompted me to publish an observation I made back in December—that the film is a Muppet Movie.  Maybe even the best Muppet movie.

Here I am on

Here’s how it breaks down:

Michael Keaton is Riggan Thompson is Kermit D. Frog, neurotic leader of a troupe of misfits desperately trying to make it on, or at least near, Broadway with a charmingly dated concept (Vaudville in the 80s / painfully earnest Carver adaptations in the ’10s). Their shows are a weird mix of cynicism and blinding idealism, on a shoestring budget, with enough of a revue aspect to allow for hilarious backstage costume antics—bet-the-farm passion projects helmed by a director/writer/producer/star so desperately earnest it sometimes hurts to watch him.

Read the rest of the article.  Honestly, I think this may be why I got so into this film.  It has problems, of course, and friends of mine keep pointing them out!  Basically every critic or critically-inclined individual I know has struck sparks off the invective Keaton’s character directs at the film’s main critic character, not to mention the critic herself, for example.  (Granted, there may be a little bit of hitting-too-close-to-home at work there—back when Stuff White People Like was a thing, I’d been studying Chinese intensely for several years and living in Anhui for a while, not to mention that I was in my early 20s and had very little sense of humor, so I was not let’s say properly primed to be able to laugh at the site’s “White People Like Studying Chinese” article.  I am now, but that’s another story.)  And its portrayal of big-ticket New York theater, and of Chandler, is… hopelessly romantic?  Especially given that Big Ticket NYC Theater is a Business, and film people on stage are hardly a new phenomenon.  But I made the Muppet connection about halfway through the film, and so—of course what’s at issue here are these Big Overwhelming Simplistic Emotional Questions of Authenticity and Wanting to Do the Right Thing By These Flawed Weird People, of course the theater’s almost out of money, of course the critic is genderswapped Statler and Waldorf, of course of course of course.   It’s even possible that, because of the Muppet-like vibe, I was prepared to accept e.g. the film’s lionization of Carver, who’s a great writer but such an easy touchstone for spare artistic excellence that he tends to get used as a kind of lazy metonymy for Art even though the film doesn’t really interact all that much IIRC with, like, Carver himself, as kind of fun-poking at the whole unreflective Carver-is-PURE-ART thing, in the same way that The Muppets is always both winking at the camera and refraining from winking at it, at one and the same time.  (And in the same way it’s possible to think Carver is awesome and recognize the existence of the aforementioned Carver Thing.)

And there’s something to be said for raw freneticism that holds together; this film is sort of applying the Tony Jaa aesthetic (speed! continuity! choroegraphy!) to drama; it’s like Eddie Izzard’s American Adaptation of British Film method applied to, say, the first season of Slings and Arrows.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about re: Eddie Izzard, watch this.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about re: Slings and Arrows, watch this.

If you don’t like the first season of Slings and Arrows, you’re wrong, and you’re on the internet, so… keep being wrong, I guess?

Anyway, I had a wonderful time at Arisia.  Good cons and good conversations and good parties!  I got confused for a Doctor Who cosplayer at the Doctor Who party, even though I was just dressed like normal.  This is maybe the best compliment I’ve ever received.  Lots of good crunchy conversation on all panels.  Theory abounds!  On the final day I even engaged in some good old-fashioned postmodernist (or metamodernist) moon-shouting.  Hooray!

In Publishing News for the Week, it looks like preorders for Last First Snow are live!  I think they’ve been for a while, but maybe they’re extra-live now or something?  Go ye forth and preorder!  It’s all for the best!

Stepladder Epiphanies & Gender; also, Arisia Schedule!

January 14th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Last week, while revising Last First Snow, I experienced what I tend to think of as a stepladder (or dim) epiphany, after the great line in Snow Crash:

[Hiro] finally went through a belated, dimwitted epiphany, not a brilliant light shining down from heaven, more like the glimmer of a half-dead flashlight from the top of a stepladder…

(Which line I just found in under a minute with reference to a physical copy of a book I haven’t read since China, so score one for codices and the human brain’s contextual search function.  But that’s another essay.)  Some days I wonder whether these kind of stepladder epiphanies aren’t the only kind—that truth, when or if it dawns, does so in the form of statements so basic it’s almost impossible to convey their depth or significance to anyone but the recipient.  So of course I’m going to try here.  Hooray!  (Also very mild spoilers for Last First Snow, my next book, ahead, if you care.)

One central character in Last First Snow is a father trying to balance duty, family life, and religious obligation.  He’s concerned: the world’s changed since his childhood, and the models of fatherhood, husband-hood, and civic duty he inherited from his parents no longer seem valid.  He’s trying to be a good man, but he grapples with the meaning of both those words.

And I realized, amid copy edits, like ten drafts into this book, that this character’s story (or, much of this character’s story) was about gender.  He’s wrestling with questions of gender performance, social roles, moral inertia, and historical demand.  He’s trapped, or at the very least confronted, by gendered terms—father, husband, man, priest, hero, king.

I didn’t have to go back and insert this angle, to be clear.  This stuff was in the book all along.  It’s not the only aspect of his character, and he certainly wouldn’t discuss it in these terms.  But it’s there, inescapable, in the marrow of the story.  And this isn’t some weird insertion of my own.  This is core fantasy stuff.  I intended this particular character’s arc to be in direct conversation with a bunch of trad fantasy and literary fiction.  Which means all those are about gender, too.

As with all epiphanies, this one has many facets, and I’m regarding each in the light, slowly.  Many (most?) of you out there will probably read the above and think, “duh,” or some more eloquent variation on same.  Unfortunately, my ponderous pondering doesn’t lead to a nice snappy sum-up.  If you’re the kind of person who seeks morals in blog posts, here are a few:

· Books are big and complicated and sometimes you don’t realize what you’re writing until long after you’ve written, no matter how much outlining or scheming you perform in advance.

· Gender structures are part of that enormous field of karmic interaction we inherit and manage / mitigate / destroy / maintain / subvert / transcend-through-awareness-of-suffering-&-codependent-origination (choose all that apply or add your own); they operate on deep levels.

· Lots of traditional fictional / literary quandaries are much more gendered than they may appear at first unreflective read.  Or at tenth reflective read for that matter.  (Sorry, Shakespeare nerd here, so these next few parentheticals will go really fast.) (To what extent does, say, Prince Hal’s strategy in Henry IV1&2 depend on the world of gender relationships and signifiers built in the play?  Hotspur is the best jock in Shakespeare’s jockiest environment, but/and that’s ultimately his weakness; Hal uses him as catspaw—yet Hal needs to figure out how to fake certain stereotypical forms of manliness in order to be an effective king.  And in this light it makes sense that so much of Hal’s character in Henry V is explicitly public, that he’s all speeches before armies, that the few times in HV we see him in private it’s like we’re seeing a warped, ruined thing, like Voldemort’s soul under that King’s Cross bench—that the degree to which Hal seems human at all in HV and not some kind of masterful broken puppet depends on the actors’ and directors’ ability & desire to sell the courtship scene b/w Hal and Katharine….)  (For that matter some of the greatest gender/power pondering in Shakespeare takes place in Othello—”not for all the world?“—which also features Iago, dark prince of Shakespeare’s clockwork men, contrasted with lover / dudebro / digital watch Cassio, and Othello himself, basically the most successful performer of manhood in the canon up to a point.)  (And then, Jesus, Macbeth and Lady Mac…) (Sorry, I need to go reread Shakespeare, I’ll be back in a bit.)

· Pace all the rest, that warped ruined thing under the King’s Cross bench is the single image from Harry Potter that stays with me on a gut-clenching personal level.  I don’t know what that says about me.  Nothing good, probably.

· Books never ‘just happen’ to be about, say, only men, or only women, or only genderless beings from Alpha Centauri.  Each option is a choice.  (Some choices may be so karmically conditioned, see above link, that we may not know they’re choices—they may seem to us like sight, or the absence of a choice.  The trolley problem is relevant here.)

· Did you know the trolley problem was first formulated by a woman, virtue ethicist Philippa Foot?

· Our choices have consequences—including the choice to stand by, and / or act in karmically conditioned fashions.  To the extent we are adults and awake, we seek to become aware of & live with the consequences of our choices.

· I’m really excited about this next book.

Housekeeping details: I updated the events page with my schedule for Arisia this weekend.  Also, Last First Snow got included along with a bunch of other excellent books in io9s Books to Watch 2015 Megalist.  And this year looks like it’ll be a killer one for books.  New Karen Lord! Zen Cho!(!!) Elizabeth Bear! China Mieville stories! Stephenson!  Ken Liu! Lagoon in the US with a worse cover than the UK edition but whatever! KSR! Y’all should watch out for Fran Wilde’s Updraft, also!  And Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which isn’t on the list but really should be.  And those are only the ones I know to be excited for.

2014 Backward, 2015 Ahead

January 7th, 2015 § 12 comments § permalink

Happy New Year, friends. neighbors, and Internet People!

I hope you all had a pleasant holiday.  The days are getting longer again, which up here in US!New England is a great and glad thing.  The worst of our winter’s still ahead, but every day we claw a minute back from the darkness.  Of course, last year was the warmest year on record—though, as I understand this sort of thing, ‘warmer’ means ‘the system is higher-energy’ which, in turn, means ‘you’ll experience greater extremes of hot and cold,’ which certainly does reflect Boston 2014.  Let’s see how 2015 fares.

In terms of work, 2014 was a pretty good year for me.  For Your Consideration, as they say in the Academy, my year in writing consisted of the following:


Full Fathom Five, Tor Books, about which you can find more relevant information on its page on this very site.  Lots of people seemed to think this was a standout book from me, which was gratifying.  It’s certainly the book with which I crossed the greatest gulfs of despair and hope in my career so far—but that’s just my subjective experience of the writing process!

Short Fiction

A Kiss with Teeth, a charming vampire story, on

Late Nights at the Cape and Cane, a story about supervillains hanging out in a bar, at Uncanny Magazine

The Angelus Guns, a tale of angelic revolution and time travel inspired by a mishearing of the lyrics to The Foggy Dew, on

This was a fun year in short fiction for me!  One of the many things I like about short fiction is that, since the text’s comparatively short, I can hold an entire short piece in my head at once, and tell if e.g. I’m overusing a certain image or leaning too much on a certain sort of description.  Of course, that means I work short pieces over and over and over again before they go anywhere, which means short pieces take a very long time to gestate.

Fan Work

I’m given to understand that this blog, which I spent a lot of time on in 2014, is technically a Fan Work, and I am a Fan Writer.  This is only fair, I think—I’ve been a Fan about ten times as long as I’ve been anything that you could remotely term “professional,” at least by the dictionary definition of the term.  Then again, the dictionary definition may not apply here!

My most popular 2014 posts turn out to have been Ghostbusting Lovecraft,  the Goblins post in which I independently derived the backstory of the Orks from Warhammer 40k (turns out cool ideas get around!), and, trailing those two by a large margin, my post on Robert Jordan and the Plinkett Test of Character Design, as well as one of my personal favorite essays of the year, the Die Hard and Fairy Tales post.

And here’s to 2015!

By way of spoilers: right now I’m working on another Choice of Game set in the Craft Sequence universe, which will hit virtual shelves this year.  Of course, Last First Snow debuts in July—preorder early, preorder often!  Or else Temoc will get angry!  Of course he may get angry even if you don’t preorder anything! Getting angry is something he does, is what I’m trying to say! I’m in the sixth or so draft of Craft Sequence Book 4 as we speak, which features many old familiar faces, and should be on my editor’s desk at the end of the month.

After that, I’m scheming deeply about a self-contained novel, plus the next Craft Sequence book of course.  And a just-for-the-hell of it side project.  And something which you know what I’ll just leave this here for now.

So, that means I’m possibly on the hook to deliver a game, two novels, and a handful of shorter fiction this year.  It’s been nice knowing y’all! *gulp*

I have a couple open questions, if you’ve made it this far:

1. I’ve thought about writing a small pamphlet about my editing process—something describing the steps I’ve passed through to turn a book like, say, FF5, from a first draft to its final form, including notes on conception, developmental editing, and language editing.  Would any of you be interested in this?  I might do it regardless, as a passion project, but if there was some interest that would shift it up my priority list.

2. Would people be interested in t-shirts, Muerte Coffee mugs, or something similar?

And now, for something sorta sappy—

As I’m looking back at this post, at the work it describes & the work it forecasts, there’s something missing in this account of text: people.  In weeks like I’ve had recently (to wit: nose, meet grindstone), it’s easy to focus so much on the language and the keyboard and the stories and the same five video game scores I listen to on repeat because I can’t do words with words in my ears.  And, you know, there’s a decent sort of easy social component of the writer’s life, all bitterness and coffee and bourbon or whiskey or whatever’s your jam, and of course let’s not forget the creeping sense of failure.  But really, I’m here, for now, to tell stories—and storytelling is about the audience.  I tell stories to and for my friends, because dammit the things they do are magic.  I tell stories to my family, to my loved ones, to strangers who stop by and listen for a few minutes or years.

So, thank you.  Stay a while.  I have great things planned.

Resolutions. Also, How to Do Your First Pull-Up.

December 31st, 2014 § 2 comments § permalink

Last year, I resolved to post to this blog once a week.  It’s gone well so far!  Not every essay is about goblin fungus, apian Star Wars, anti-Lovecraftian philosophy, or John McClane’s fairy tale roots, but I’ve had a great time, and the weekly schedule has proved just ambitious enough to inspire.  I fully plan to remain here, and at, for 2015, though oh my god you all should see my production schedule for 2015!  I have a lot of work ahead of me.

Which is great!  The pie-eating contest’s coolest prize is more pie.  (Though money doesn’t hurt.)  Still, that’s a lotta pie!  More details as I can offer them.

First, for housekeeping: Full Fathom Five made Vox’s Best Books of 2014 list, and’s Best of 2014 as well!  Huge honors.  I’m thrilled.  The thought that excellent people are putting me on the same list as, seriously, look at every other author else on both those lists—it’s a really cool thought.  More bulwarks against impostor syndrome, for sure.

In other Max-related writing news, I wrote a post for The Book Smugglers’ end-of-year celebration, Smugglivus, about how winter is the best season for readers, including a list of some of my favorite winter reads.  Looking for book recommendations?  Hie thee hence!

And, because it’s Resolution Season—after some conversation about pull-ups on Twitter a while back I mentioned that, as of graduation from college, I’d never successfully performed a single one.  Getting to my first pull-up was a huge milestone for me.  Some folk were interested in how I got there; now, I’m not a personal trainer by any stretch of the imagination, but here’s:

The Pull-up Protocol!


Pull-ups!  A great movement that I used to feel an utter martial arts failure for not being able to do!  Every time I watched a movie where Indiana Jones pulled himself up over a cliff, I’d feel this stab of guilt—”were I in the same situation, I’d die.”

Then, my first year in China, I had a lot of free time on my hands, and a copy of Ross Enamait’s Never Gymless, and decided, screw it, let’s make this pull-up thing happen.  (Much of the routine below comes out of Never Gymless, which is an insane book written by terrifyingly sane person for insane people—it’s  a bodyweight combat fitness book, and consists of excellent exercise advice mixed with demonstrations that Ross Enamait, the writer, is a superhuman.  TRIPLE HANDCLAP PUSHUPS.  Tiger leaping from plank position.  “Here are some variations on the one-handed pushup if this movement is too easy for you.”  “One-arm handstand pushups develop good core strength.  I strongly recommend this movement.”  Jesus Christ.)

Three concepts that you probably already know, but I enjoy writing, so here we are:

  1.  As you know, Bob, a negative rep is the part of the exercise in which you return to the starting position.  For example, in a pushup, it’s the part where you descend from the plank until your nose touches the floor.  In a pull-up, it’s the part after your chin has cleared the bar, in which you lower yourself to the starting position.
  2. Negative reps work basically the same muscles basically the same way as positive reps, only from a different (& often easier) angle of approach.  So, by working negative reps, you can build strength for full repetitions.  It’s like an assisted rep, but you feel more badass (or at least I did), and don’t need bands or one of those weird assisted pull-up stations.
  3. Isometric exercises (e.g. static holds) are (a) awesome, and (b) build strength for ten to fifteen degrees around the particular angle articulation held.  So, if you chain isometric exercises together like pages in a flipbook, you can improve strength throughout an entire movement.  (Which is a good way to improve punching power and speed, if you’re interested.)

So, Max’s 0 to Pull-up Progression which is really just my implementation of Ross Enamait’s advice:

Start with negative reps.  Jump so your chin’s over the bar (or step up using a stool if jumping doesn’t work for you for some reason), and lower yourself slowly (like a count of five or ten?) with good form—shoulders down, lats engaged.  I started, IIRC, with pyramid sets with rests capped at 30s—for example 1 rep, rest 10s, 2 reps, rest 20s, 3 reps, rest 30s, 4 reps, rest 30s, and back down the pyramid.  I don’t know that there’s anything magical about this method as opposed to three even sets.  Like I said up top, I don’t know what I’m doing!

When you feel comfortable with the movement, incorporate static holds on each rep at the quarter-points of the exercise, so the isometric strength you’re building overlaps (like I try to describe in point 3 above).

Train to the last movement you can do with good form.  (Which is what I tell myself whenever I pick up a weight, and still I find myself trying to beast through the last rep with horrible form.)

Occasionally check max_reps on the movement.  I think for me the first pull-up came soon after I could do a set of ten controlled negative reps with isometric holds—which took a couple months of regular training (3x/week, I think).  It happened so smoothly I didn’t even realize I’d done my first pull-up until it was done.  My wife used the same protocol to do her first pull-up a few years later, so it’s not just me!  That said, if you weigh more, you’ll have to build more strength to perform the movement, which might take longer.

I still don’t have a high max volume of pull-ups, but the exercise remains one of my favorites, and I crank a few out whenever I pass a bar.  They feel great, and they’re one of the few exercises where you can think, “Yeah, I might use this some day.”  Especially if you ever become Indiana Jones.

Anyway, that’s all for the year, folks.  Have a happy one, and I’ll see you around!

It’s Christmas Eve

December 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Happy holidays, everybody.  This week I have a busy agenda of re-reading Hogfather and The Dark is Rising, and hanging out with my family and my nephew.  Who is also family, I suppose, but deserves special mention.

I hope you’re all well.  Enjoy midwinter, read good books, and love your neighbors as yourselves.

I’ll be back next week.

In Which I Sing Dwarven Carols

December 17th, 2014 § 7 comments § permalink

I cannot tell you how excited I am to share this video with you all.

That’s my friend Daniel Jordan on the right; he’s a biophysicist and excellent musician who’s writing a way cool rock opera adaptation Wagner’s Ring Cycle, because that’s how we roll in Somerville Mass.

Other news, if you are insufficiently Holiday’d:, the more fools they, invited me to write about whether The Nightmare Before Christmas is properly a Christmas movie, or a Halloween movie, or what.  This in turn occasioned me to engage in my favorite pasttime: obsessive rumination on religion and story structure, plus Die Hard references!

This is a frivolous question, sure, like some of the best. But even frivolous questions have a serious edge: holidays are ritual times, and stories are our oldest rituals. The stories we tell around a holiday name that holiday: I’ve failed at every Christmas on which I don’t watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. When December rolls around, even unchurched folk can get their teeth out for a Lessons & Carols service.

So let’s abandon trappings and turn to deep structures of story. Does The Nightmare Before Christmas work as Christmas movies do? Does it work as Halloween movies do? It can achieve both ends, clearly—much as a comedy can be romantic, or a thriller funny. But to resolve our dilemma we must first identify these deep structures.

Happy holidays, y’all!


A Bit of a Love Letter to Kip Thorne Honestly

December 3rd, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

Hi everyone!  I’m back at this week, with a post about Interstellar and Kip Thorne.  Behold: an essay in which I get excitable and incoherent about science writing!  Read the rest here!

Or, if you’re interested, I’m trying a strange experiment: video!  What experiment is this, you say.  Here, says I:

What do you think?  Worth doing more?  Oh my god Gladstone stay off our video internet?

Other news: I’ve published a rare Craft Sequence short story, as part of the Shared Nightmares anthology.  It’s available right now wherever fine books and ebooks are sold, stars Tara and Abelard, and is a piece of good clean fun about nightmares and office technology.  Enjoy!

Oh, and though it should go without saying: it’s Christmastime!  Have you considered possibly acquiring a nice new book for you and / or your friends?

Indiana Jones, Column, Website Updates!

November 19th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

First things first: for your regular weekly dose of crazy Max thoughts about weird geek stuff, go check out this article I wrote for on why Indiana Jones isn’t that bad of an archaeologist really:

Indiana Jones isn’t that bad of an archaeologist.

I mean, okay, the low relative quality of his archaeological expeditions is so notorious it’s become a bit of a truism. There’s a great McSweeney’s list of the reasons Herr Doktor Jones was denied tenure. Even as I make this argument, I can hear friends of mine who spent their summers on digs cringe inside, across the continent. (Hi, Celia!) But hear me out. This won’t take long.

(Looks at rest of essay)

Um. Maybe it will. Keep reading anyway.

This brings us to an important housekeeping issue: starting with this post, I’ll be over at once every other week, posting weird off-the-wall essays on geek madness.  Since blog post writing (especially at this length) cuts into fiction-writing time, I’ll be restricting myself to brief posts on this site on the weeks a piece goes live—mostly pointing your way to the column.  I have Grand Schemes about multimedia elements to complement the pieces, but that will take shape when I have more time than I do at the moment.

Speaking of which: second important housekeeping issue!  Due to Deadline Confluence, I’ll be less available on social media and the like than usual for the rest of the year.  Basically I’ll be keeping old-fashioned Visiting Hours—I’m At Home to Friends or Reasonable Facsimiles Thereof on Twitter and Facebook Monday and Wednesday afternoons.  All other times, my currently live Schemes require above-average levels of Brutal Focus.  Plus side: if I come through this alive, you’ll have a book, and a game, and I might be able to play Dragon Age: Inquisition!

Third important housekeeping issue!  I’ve done most of the website redesign I’ve planned.  The site doesn’t look much different, but I’ve created individual book pages, added a description for the Craft Sequence, and given you a menu of delectable and free short fiction upon which to browse.  Also, my Events page is up to date with confirmed Con appearances through August!  Coming soon: fan art gallery.

Fourth—ah, no, this really isn’t a housekeeping issue, it’s just that Breaking Bad / Frozen video you’ve seen elsewhere.  Still great though!

Surviving a National Novel Writing Apocalypse

November 5th, 2014 § 2 comments § permalink

To start, news! I have a new short story out this week!  Don’t expect this kind of treatment regularly, but I wrote a thing about supervillains at a bar, and it’s in the first issue of Uncanny Magazine, the rest of which is also worth reading!  Now, on to your regularly scheduled bloviating.

National Novel Writing Month is here!  If you’re not a dual-class writer / internet person this may not mean much to you, so here’s the skinny: every November, people around the world sign up to write 50,000 words over the course of the calendar month.  This is a large number of words to write.  For participant, especially those who haven’t done it before, NaNoWriMo may feel like a constant sprint against a voracious and ever-advancing wordcount target.  1,667 words every single day.  Weekends.  Holidays.

The Target does not stop.  The Target does not sleep.  The Target doesn’t care about your nervous breakdown.  Tired?  Wrists hurt?  Out of coffee?  Tough.  The Target still shambles forward, rotten teeth jutting jagged from rotten gums.  Run as fast as you can, look back, and you’ll find the Target behind you—always just behind you somehow, over your shoulder, down that alley.  Rest and it will find you.  The Target has no sympathy.  The Target feels no pain.  The Target doesn’t feel anything, really, not even hunger.  Feelings are a distraction.  The Target eats.  The Target follows.  The Target’s behind you right now.  You could feel its breath on your neck, if it breathed.  The air stinks of rot and typewriter ribbon.

I live the fight against the Target.  I lived it long before I stumbled into this neat, terrifying place where I fight the Target full-time.  If this is your first time through, or, hell, if this is your fifth time through but you still feel that fear, if you wake some nights drowning in the stink of rot and typewriter ribbon—I’m here to offer you some pieces of advice I hope will be worth the time you’re even now thinking you could have, should have, spent running, fighting, building barricades.  I hope—this will help you.  Because it’s a vicious world out there.

Don’t Panic (Though it will get bad.)  The Target knows your fear.  It’s not smart, understand—but it uses your own smarts against you, instinctively.  Our great-great-a-billion-times-great grandmas were little rats quivering under leaves as monstrous feathered lizards prowled for a snack—we’re built to freeze under pressure, or to run.  The Target’s dumb, but thorough.  If you remain in place, it will devour you.  And the closer it gets (or the further ahead it gets!) the more a little voice will whisper in your ear: freeze.  Don’t trust that voice.  The Target won’t get you if you run, and keep running.  And on that note…

Don’t Sprint (Unless You’re Almost Safe.)  If you want to rely on sprinting, you should have been born a cheetah.  There’s good evidence humans evolved to jog after animals across the savannah until they died from exhaustion and fright.  You remember the bit in Butch and Sundance where they go: “Who are these guys?”  That’s us, in the animal kingdom.  That’s humans.  I know a woman who accidentally killed her friend’s dog while taking it for a run—she’s an ultramarathonner, and turns out dogs aren’t built to run marathons.  That’s the human race right there.  We can sprint, when we need to, but that’s not how we’re built.   Write ten thousand words in a day and your wrists will cringe, your back will seize, your scavenger’s mind will yearn to do anything else.  Which is fine if you’ve just made it to that Last Redoubt called The End.  It’s a problem if you’re in the middle of Act III with 40,000 words left and Target closing in.  If you’re behind, if you’re in Target-held territory, figure out how to extricate yourself smoothly and dependably.  Yes, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in a couple weeks on a single roll of butcher paper, but (1) you’re not Jack Kerouac, (2) he was on a disgusting amount of Benzedrine, and (3) you’re still not Jack Kerouac.  Oh, and (4), he’d written three test drafts of the novel before he sat down with the butcher paper.  So:

Trust Your Plan (Most of the time.)  Stress makes human beings good at lots of stuff, but it shoots our reasoning abilities in the gut.  Literally!  Your body doesn’t know the difference between “oh god oh god tiger gonna eat me” and “this is a minor career setback that can be overcome with reasonable effort.”  So when you smell that rot and typewriter ribbon, you’ll manufacture all sorts of crazy ideas.  What the hell am I doing?  I should set fire to this whole manuscript.  I should set fire to this whole coffee shop.  Most insidious: this plan, these ideas I wrote back when I was safe, before the world began to burn, they’re all shit and I’m shit and oh my god we’ve been on the wrong path this entire time, let’s run left into the forest!  Which isn’t bad in itself, but odds are you don’t know how to navigate the forest, and there are actual honest-to-god tigers out there.  But sometimes you have to…

Listen to Your Gut (When it’s right.)  Yeah, I know, I just said don’t do this, but if this was a science we’d be on PhDComics and I’d have better job security.  Here’s the flip side of “trust your plan”—you made your plan before you met the Target.  You made your plan based on a Google Earth map of the territory you’d be running through, without setting foot on the ground.  Maybe that route you charted is uphill.  Maybe Google Earth was wrong (shock! horror!) and the route’s actually a dead end.  Maybe Godzilla smashed the Golden Gate Bridge, and you needed that bridge.  Yeah, your plan made sense when you drew it, but you know, now, that you’ve taken a wrong turn.  Here’s storytelling’s dirty secret, the ball they hide in those seminars about Aristotle and Freytag: our bodies know stories.  And just so we don’t hide the ball any further: yes, I’m talking about sex.  Just look at this diagram, which is super-industry-standard stuff I pulled from a Gamasutra article I found by googling Story Tension Diagram.  There are roughly a billion of these on the internet.


What’s that look like to you?  Really?  To me it looks like an excellent night in.  There’s a writing prompt here, but I try to keep this site pg-13.

But, and this is crucial, there is a difference between the voice in your gut that’s right and the voice that’s wrong.  That’s hard to learn.  You learn it on the ground, in unfamiliar territory, with Target closing in.  Some guidelines that work for me: the voice that says “this project is horrible, you’re horrible” is generally wrong.  The voice that says, “woah, wait a second, I’m really not into this” is often right.  For me, and feel free to disregard because I’m verging on Mystical Writer Mumbo Jumbo here, if I’m paying attention I can even tell where those voices are coming from.  The first sits behind and above my shoulders, pressing down and forward.  The second is a hole just in front of my spine, below the belly button, about where taiji folks will place the dan-t’ien.  Done with Mystical Writer Mumbo Jumbo for the moment.  Trust your gut.  Trust your plan.  You won’t survive without both.

Find Friends who Know the Target. This is a lonely fight.  It’s terrifying.  People lose all the time.  You will freeze, you will dive into the woods, you will hew to a plan when the landscape on which the plan was based lies in a million shattered pieces at your feet.  You need friends.  You need people who understand.  It’s best if they’ve been here before, if they’ve run from the Target, if they’re running now—but really, if you scratch the surface, everyone has a Target.  They might not realize it, but they do.  Find friends.  Lower your shields against one another so you can present a shield wall against the Target.  Beat an orderly retreat together.

Trust the Time Machine.  There’s a time machine in the Last Redoubt, and once you reach it, you can go back.  Those weird sentences you know you wrote?  You can fix them.  That unnecessary chapter?  Make it necessary, or cut it out.  That scene which starts too soon, or too late, you can start it on time.  Don’t flounder on the road, dreaming about the time machine.  Once you reach the Last Redoubt, you’ll have all the time in the world.  For now, you have to keep moving—so long as you know what direction you’re moving in.  This is especially true while the Target’s chasing you.  There’s no time for Joycean line-by-line angst.  Run.  Move.  Breathe.  Make mistakes.  If they are mistakes, you can fix them later.  But sometimes they aren’t mistakes.  Sometimes they’re bigger than that.  Sometimes they’re big enough to be genius.

It’s not about the Target.  Betrayal! you cry.  Treachery!  Treason!  Hogwash, I say: the target does not matter.   Repeat that.  If the Target matters, you will lose.  The Target is death, the Target is implacable, the Target is the mechanical pacing rabbit.  Don’t settle for surviving the Target.  Have something to live for.  Know what you want at the end of the race.  Know your Last Redoubt.  Know the friend you’ll rescue in the knick of time.  Aim for that swordfight, that first kiss, the final joke you’ve spent the whole book setting up.  Remember why you’re here—remember why you decided to write this book.  Justice?  Love?  Rebellion?  Taste it.  Smell it.  That’s what will pull you forward, through all the connective tissue, through all the wrong turns, through the jungle, through the stench of rot and ribbon.  Go there.  Take your reader with you.

I’m Writing this for You, and for Me.  There’s a reason I don’t do writing advice on this blog often.  Storytelling is the big human project.  We’ve been doing it for thousands of years—exploring its possibilities, developing forms and techniques, trying new things and rehearsing old schemes.  We tell stories about gods and we tell stories about atoms and we tell stories about people, who are even weirder than gods and atoms.  Storytelling is complicated, is what I’m saying.  I’ve thought about this stuff for a long time.  I’ve written way more than my 10,000 hours.  I still lose my way.  I come from schools of martial arts where teaching is what a master gives you, or a coach.  Senior students know what works for them—but they might not know enough to know that their advice only works in a certain context.  A fencer might feel he’s winning for one reason but might actually be winning for another reason altogether.  It’s mad.

And I’m no master.  I’ve published books.  I’ve been nominated for awards.  I write quickly, and well, and dependably.  And still I just finished a 12,500 word story—took me four days to write, and in the process I had every problem I’ve listed here, and more besides.  This is a letter to my future self as much as it is to you.  Maybe this will all come off as presumptive and weird.  But…

I started bouldering this year.  And one of the things I love about it is: there’s no master.  Just you and the wall.  And if you’re having trouble, one thing you can do is turn to the guy or gal next to you and say, “Damn, I’m having a hard time with this.  Any ideas?”  Their ideas might not work.  They might.  But either way they give you something new to take to the wall.

So that’s what I have for you this week: a bit of advice from someone else staring up the wall.

Go climb.  Kick ass.  Build something awesome.

The world needs more of that.

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