Saturday, October 26, 2013

Here are the Dots. YOU Connect Them.

This week’s blog entry will be something of a buffet, a smorgasbord of ideas.  If there is any central meaning in the mishmash of things in my life this week, I can’t see it.  
The Cougar in Central Park
This week, listening to the radio, I learned that there is a wild mountain lion living in Griffith Park.  For those of you outside of Los Angeles, Griffith Park is the L.A. area’s premiere green space and at 4,100 plus acres is one of the largest city-owned and maintained parks in the United States.  New York’s famous Central Park is about one-fifth the size at 840 acres.  
The mountain lion doesn’t have a name, though he has been given a designation.  P22. Which stands for “Puma Twenty-Two.”  He was originally captured and tagged in 2012.  Genetic testing shows that he’s related to lions living in the Santa Monica mountains.  Which means he had to not only sneak through miles of urban jungle, but also had to cross two freeways, the 405 and the 101, without getting hit to end up where he is now.  
The cougar, a young guy at about three or four years old, was probably driven out of the range he was born in by bigger, tougher cats, has remained in the park since being tagged.  At first glance it looks like he has it pretty good.  As far as big predators go, he’s the King of Griffith Park.  The coyotes and bobcats that roam the park with him aren’t much competition.  He has all the mule deer he can eat.  
But as good as he has it, the naturalist on the radio show said that eventually he’ll probably try to leave.  Why?  Because no other mountain lions in the park means no other FEMALE mountain lions.  And male mountain lions look for female mountain lions more than they look for food.  
What does this mean for P22?  The closest population of mountain lions to Griffith Park are in the San Gabriel mountains, north of Glendale and Pasadena, where I live.  This means that P22 will either have to try to go back the way he came, unlikely since he probably remembers the bullies that pushed him east in the first place, or he’ll have to make another treacherous crossing, over the 5 freeway and the 134, and through the much more heavily urbanized areas of Glendale and Pasadena.  If he doesn’t get hit by a truck trying to cross the interstate, he may run amok of some frightened homeowner and get himself in trouble that way.  
I feel for P22.  I imagined myself going to the park and leading him out, through underpasses or waterways, tunnels and back alleys, to the point where he could sneak to the San Gabriel mountains on his own.  He’s still a young guy, but living in isolation will only get harder for him as time goes on.  
I speak from experience.  
A Vehicular Conspiracy.
This has been THE WORST commuting week in my driving history.  Every day this week.  EVERY SINGLE DAY, I have been forced to come to a complete and total halt on the freeway due to an accident involving three or more cars.  
Four times, this has been on the way home at the end of very long days.  Waiting on the freeway, stuck in traffic, is ten thousand times more damaging to one’s psyche that being stuck on the way to work.  I don’t know if any studies have been conducted to prove this, but I have no doubt of what the results would be if they were done.  
Last night, after creeping past three cars that had rumbled into the woods at the northeast corner of the 405/101 exchange and seeing on my iPhone that there was ANOTHER incident up the freeway ahead of me, I forced my way through the three lanes between me and the off-ramp, turned around and headed way out of my way to the 118.  It’s called the Ronald Reagan Expressway, the 118.  If I had to register as a Republican to drive on it at that point, I would have done so.  
Maybe that was the point?  The freeway is always slow in Los Angeles, and you see fender-benders every week.  But this week was so far out of the normal that I had to wonder if it was being set up against me.  Was there some force, alien, spiritual, political, that was trying to divert me on to another path.  
“Don’t use these freeways paid by the government.  Look at how bad they are!  Vote for the initiative coming up in November to PRIVATIZE the roadway system.  Private enterprise is ALWAYS better at any endeavor, given equal resources.”  
Or maybe the universe was just trying to get me to relax.  “Hey...  Slow down...  Sit for a spell...  Take your foot off the accelerator...  You’ll get there soon enough.”  
No.  That can’t be it.  But I’m on to them now.  I’ll figure out their plot and how they’re doing it.  If a three year old mountain lion can find his way home through this mess, nothing is going to stop me!  
Pick Is as Picky Does
Another idea I had about P22, while sitting there NOT MOVING A FREAKING INCH FOR TWENTY MINUTES, was that maybe we could bring a female to Griffith Park for him.  An older kitty with a taste for younger males.  
‘Cause she’s a cougar.  You get it, right?  
We’d airlift her in, because we wouldn’t want to run the risk of being stuck behind four cars crumpled together because, through some insane mind-control project gone wrong, their drivers simultaneously decided to plow their cars into each other.  We’d have a helicopter land at the Griffith Observatory and release her in the brush beyond.  And then we’d wait and let nature take its course.  Then everyone is happy.
Unless P22 didn’t like our choice for him.  Maybe P22 didn’t leave the Santa Monica mountains because the other males were bigger and stronger than him.  Maybe he came out this way because all the females he found there weren’t up to his standards.  Huh?  It’s possible.  
Now, you might say to P22, if this was the case, “Look...  How many females you see sprinting across eight lanes of traffic to get to you?  Huh?  None!  So if one comes your way, you better just accept what you get, see?”  
But P22 might think, “Is that really the mindset you need to find love?  Sure, for most of the males of my kind, once we’ve done our business we’re out of the scene.  It would work for any other mountain lion you might find.  But me...  I’m looking for something different.  Hey, I know I’m a weirdo among mountain lions.  So I need to find someone compatible with me, who can take my idiosyncrasies in stride.  Or better still, complement me in how I live my life.”  
Hang in there, P22.  I know where you’re coming from.  People have said the same thing to me.  When I see so many relationships go from boom to bust, I don’t understand what advantage there is in “being less picky.”  Go chew on some mule deer jerky while I think about it some more.  
Avocation is a Hobby Wearing Better Clothing.
I think my writing is turning into a hobby.   And that feels like a step back for me.  
The biggest clue this week came on Thursday, when I cut my writing session off short to go online to play my playoff game for my WGT Baseball team.  I won.  I eventually won first place for the season.  That makes it three times in six seasons I’ve ended up as champion, though it’s been three seasons since the last such win.  
My writing numbers have been going down.  Previously I’d get around fifteen hundred words a day.  A thousand would be my minimum.  Friday, I ended up writing a little less that seven hundred, and all of it was writing the section of a short story that I wrote two days before.  Thursday I didn’t get any new writing done.  I wrote a journal entry and I read what I’d written on Wednesday.  Then I went off and beat “Stephen’s Team” to clinch a spot in the finals bracket by a score of 13 to 1.  
When I’ve talked about myself as a writer, I would refer to writing as my Avocation.  To make it clear I wasn’t earning my living by writing.  I want to.  I’ve been paid for my writing.  But not enough so I only have to do that.  
But now, Avocation feels too...   Fancy.  Too made up.  Too stuck-up.  But on the other hand, “hobby” is too...  Amateurish.  Too unsure.  Too...
It is what I was doing before I started submitting stories to publishers.  I remember the change that went through me when I decided that I was going to put the story I was working on into an envelope and send it to a publisher when I was finished.  It became IMPORTANT.  It had to be right.   It had to be the best I could do.  I was much more sharply focused on what I was doing.  I’ve tried to maintain that focus in the decades since.  
Calling what I do a hobby would take me back to before that point.  But if it fits...
Anyway.  That’s it.  Not all of it.  There are some dots from this week that I am not able to make public.  I’ll have to try to connect them as best I can on my own.  
If all this makes a picture for you, let me know what it is.  I’d appreciate it.  

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Trying to Not Write Crap

The problem that I’m having with my writing in particular, and my life in general right now, isn’t that it’s bad.  It’s that it isn’t good enough.  
A perfect example of how bad not being good enough can be are my Los Angeles Dodgers.  As has been repeated often enough throughout the baseball world, they had a horrible start to the year but turned it around in June.  They went from the bottom of their division to the top, ending with one of the best records in the majors.  They cruised by the Atlanta Braves, a team expected to beat them, and then got a chance to play for a spot in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.  
The Cardinals were the best hitting team in the National League this season.  But over the first four games, the Dodgers held them to a total of four runs, an average of two runs per game.  That’s less than half of what the Cardinals averaged during the regular season, when they averaged 4.8 runs per game.  The pitching and defense were doing what they needed to do.  The Dodgers weren’t scoring enough runs either.
And it wasn’t even a matter of getting enough hits.  The Dodgers were hitting around .248 as a team during the playoffs.  The Cardinals were hitting around .198.  But the Cards were getting their hits when they had runners on base, and the Dodgers weren’t.  In the end, it caught up with them, and the St. Louis bats woke up to end the season for Los Angeles.  
They weren’t playing badly.  They just weren’t playing good enough, at some very key points of the game, to win.  
It sums up how I feel things are going for me.  I don’t think I’m writing badly.  I am starting to think, though, that I am missing something.  Key facets that I’m not getting right.  The numbers prove me out.  I have been writing to publish for about twenty-three years or so, give or take.  In that time span I’ve had two short stories sold.  If I were a baseball player, I’d have an average of .003.  
There’s a player on the Dodgers that I like a lot.  Dee Gordon.  Plays shortstop.  Good fielder.  Really fast.  But his batting average is around a hundred-something.  If he could hit around two hundred or so, it might be enough to put him in the lineup as the lead-off hitter.  Instead, he keeps getting sent down to the minors, and he keeps getting recalled to join the team when they think they might need someone to pinch-run for one of the better hitters late in a tight game.  
Dee is a good player.  Just not good enough to stick with the team.  
What makes this feeling so frustrating...  Well, the two things that make this feeling frustrating, are these: 
The first is the feeling of being so close, yet so very far away.  I’ve had at least one editor of a professional publication send me an email asking me to send my stories his way.  From the rejection letters and message I get, I know that my stories are getting out of the slush pile and are being read by people making the final decision.  But they don’t seem to be falling my way.  It’s like making contact with the ball, but grounding out or popping up all the time.  
The second frustrating part of feeling like this is that I’m not entirely sure what I need to work on.  It would be like going up to Dee Gordon and saying, “Get more hits!”  As if he didn’t already know that was the issue.  
I recall a story that J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Bablyon 5, used to tell at Comic-Con.  It was when he was a young man starting to submit his work for publication and wasn’t selling anything.  He discovered that Harlan Ellison, the famous science fiction writer,  had a number listed in the phone book.  So he decided to call Harlan to ask advice.  
The way Straczynski tells the story, the conversation went something like this: 
Ring...  Ring...  Ring...  Click.
“Uh...  Is this...  Harlan Ellison?”  
“Yeah.  Who is this?”
“Uh, my name is Joe Straczynski...  I’m a fan of yours--”
“Whaddya want?”  
“Well...  I’m a writer, and I’m submitting stories, but they keep getting rejected.  I was wondering if you could tell how I could get more stories sold.”  
(Pause, then..) “Stop writing crap.”  
“If your stories were any good, they’d be selling.  You’re probably writing crap.  Stop writing crap.”  
“Oh.  OK...  Thank--”
Telling that story has lead me into a quandary as far as this blog post is concerned.  Straczynski obvious overcame whatever it was that was keeping him from being not good enough.  I remember another thing he often says when giving panels at conventions: Never give up on your dreams.  
It’s hard to write that.  Because by writing it, I’m not letting myself off the hook.  And I think I want to be let off the hook and tossed back into the pond.  
When I write, I have two documents on my screen.  One is the blank page that will be whatever blog or short story or novel chapter that I’m working on.  The other is my “Word Palette.”  This is a document that I use to keep writing.  If, while working on the blog entry or short story, I get stuck, I will then switch over the word palette and start typing away.  I might write something like, “Why am I stuck?” or “This is wrong, it’s going no where, what do I do...?” or something else.  I often write the paragraph or page or sentence over and over again, in different ways, until it feels right to me.  
While writing this blog entry, after making two or three false starts to it, I wrote in my word palette the following: 
“And the moment I bring up the blank page, I go blank.  I don’t want to write anything.  I’m stopping now.”  
And I did.  I stopped typing.  I sat there.  I told myself I had reached the end of my writing career.  I was stopping for good.  I let that decision soak through me.  I tried to feel what that would mean for me.  Getting up at six in the morning instead of four, and still having the time to get ready for work and out on time.  
What I didn’t do was stop the timer.  I set a timer to measure my writing session and I write the time down in a spread sheet.  It’s my timecard as a writer.  I knew that if I turned off the timer after having written that line, it would be the end.  A phase of my life would end.  
But I didn’t.  I got the idea that I should at least post a final blog entry.  I would name it that.  “My Final Blog Entry.”  It made sense to me.  It would be the right thing to do.  
So, I wrote in my word palette, “Or Not” and started writing this entry, with the idea that it would be about feeling not good enough and that I had decided to stop.  
But then I conveyed the story about J. Michael Straczynski calling Harlan Ellison, which lead me to the other thing he said all the time, and having written it out I’m thinking now that I have to keep trying until I find away to stop writing crap.  
Damn it.  
It’s been said that writing needs to be its own reward, otherwise it will be too hard to keep it up when things aren’t going well.  I guess it can do that as well by being its own little coach, barking from the sidelines, “Just Don’t Write Crap!”  
OK.  I’ll try not to.  

Monday, October 14, 2013

It Might be Time to Quit

I think this is a last gasp.  
I found myself wondering over this weekend if I should give up trying to write stories to publish professionally.  This entry is the first writing of any substance that I’ve written since Thursday, October 10th.  The three day gap is the longest I can remember having in...  Ever.  
There were circumstances.  Excuses.  Good reasons.  
Friday was a combination of stuff.  I made the decision to work on my finances, paying bills and updating my accounts, because I hadn’t done so in close to two weeks.  It was weighing on my mind and I felt I couldn’t focus on anything until I got that done.  I was being responsible.  Soon after that, while I was getting out of the shower, I got a call from one of my employees telling me that they couldn’t get into the office to start working.  I had to call people to get someone over there and immediately got dressed and drove over myself, without eating breakfast or making myself lunch.  It was my responsibility as the department manager.  I had to do it.  
The truth is, though, on Friday, I didn’t want to face my writing.  On Thursday, I had put down my first “real” writing in...  Checking my writing timesheet now for accuracy...  September 9th.  By “real writing” I mean story.  Characters speaking dialogue, wanting things, doing stuff to get those things they want, etc.  It was on September 9th that I started outlining my novel, again, in response to some things I picked up at WorldCon in San Antonio.  All of the writing I was doing for that month was about the story, but not the story itself.  
Once I got the outline done, I felt at a loss at what to do next.  Should I dive right back in on writing the novel.  I felt a bit exhausted at the prospect.  I’ve rewritten the first act about four times, I’m guessing, and the second act two or three times as well.  The third act is the same as when I finished it a year and a half ago, almost two years now, maybe...  Or maybe three?  Anyway, the third act hasn’t been touched since the rough draft was finished, since I hadn’t come up with a complete, finished draft of the first two acts to support it.  
To write “something” I tried working on a short story idea I’ve head for a couple of months.  It was inspired by an article I read in Scientific American about the future of robotics, about how the relationship with robots in the work place is shifting.  Today robots assist or complement human workers, but in the future robots will be giving human assistants instructions to help them do the work, basically turning robots into our bosses.  I wondered about that relationship, especially the part where the training paradigm given in the article was that the robots would learn the job by working with the humans and then take over giving directions at some point.  The story idea was the spark between that concept and some things that had happened at my own job when things had gone wrong.  
Anyway, I wrote an opening for the story.  I sort of jumped in a bit before I was ready.  I had finished an outline, but there were blank spots.  I thought that I might find out what happened in those spots by diving in and heading toward the deep end of the story.  
What I wrote wasn’t bad, I don’t think.  It wasn’t terrific.  There were things missing that I knew I had to go back and add in.  But, there was just something... Not quite there.  I found myself wondering if it was a viable idea.  I thought about all the times I’ve had stories rejected and wondered if maybe I just didn’t come up with publishable ideas.  “How long have I been trying to do this?” I asked myself.  What degree of success have I had.  If my success percentage were a batting average, I would have been sent to the minor leagues years ago.  
So Friday, I let my financials take precedent.  It was something very straightforward, very doable.  And when the call came in from the worker waiting outside the office, it was an easy decision to leave home then and there and rush over to get things started.  And after working thirteen hours that day, due to the roll-out of a new website for our clients, sleeping in on Saturday was a no-brainer.  And then there were the dishes that had sat in the sink for all that week, because I hadn’t had time to wash them because of my writing schedule, plus I had to go to the gym, and there was a party I was invited to, which kept me up late again, which lead to sleeping in on Sunday (I needed my rest, right?), after which I had to get my laundry started...
It was on Sunday that I faced the fact that I felt lost.  I didn’t know what I wanted to write about.  Or even if I should be writing anything, ever again.  I began to see the advantages of going to bed at a more comfortable hour and waking up in time to get ready and go to work.  The extra hour or so of sleep I could schedule myself for.  The extra half hour I could use to go to the gym.  There was an appeal there.  
There was also a sense of defeat.  A feeling that I was...  Well...  Old.  A middle-aged nerd that hadn’t learned that some dreams just don’t come true.  
I’m still thinking about these things.  I don’t have any real answer.  What I do have is the habit, which is what is prompting me to finish and entry this blog entry.  Habits, good or bad, are hard to break.  
Endings are always the hardest part of the story for me.  Maybe that’s what is happening right now.  So, instead of giving this a real ending, I’ll just stop.  

Sunday, October 06, 2013

I am He as You are He as You are Me

I am a science fiction writer.  
This is how I think of myself.  My self-identification.  
I do things to support this self view.  I get up around 4 AM each morning and spend an hour and a half writing something.  The novel I’ve been working on for the past couple of years.  A short story to send out.  A blog entry.  
This is not the only identity that I have.  I am also a Production Manager.  This is how I, and others, refer to at the place I go to every week day to perform activities that can be categorized under the blanket term of “work.”  These activities include writing reports.  Evaluating the performances of the employees that report to me.  Developing new processes.  Responding to the emergencies that clients and colleagues bring to my attention.  
These two identities get along for the most part.  But sometimes they do come into conflict.  This last week, for instance, the situation with the work flow in my department necessitated that I get to the office much earlier than normal and stay much later.  
Production manager said to science fiction writer: “Hey, you take a couple of days off.  I need to use your time to take care of business.”  
Science fiction writer replied: “But I don’t want to give up my time!  In fact, I’m trying to figure out a way to take all of your time, so you can go into retirement!”  
PM: “Hey...  Be my guest.  Take all the time you want.  While you’re at it, can you tell me who’s going bring in the money to pay the electric bill, or the rent on this place, or put food in our collective stomach?  Huh?  Or are you aiming to be a starving artist?”  
SFW: “Well...”  
PM: “Yeah, thought so.  Just step aside for a moment.  I’ll let you come back and play in a couple of days.”  
I have other identities.  Some are pretty obvious.  Some are secret, just like Batman being Bruce Wayne except not nearly as exciting.  They all have their moments to come out and take the stage.  
Heterosexual Male - This one hums along in the background, usually frustrated, always there trying to tell the others what to do.
American Citizen - This is another background identity.  I don’t recall him making any sort of appearance on September 10, 2001.  The next day was a different story.  These days, with what the government in Washington is doing (or not doing), he’s too embarrassed to come out.  
Here’s a short list of other identities: 
Dodger fan.
Los Angeles Kings fan.
Lapsed Catholic.  
Damien High School Graduate.
2nd Generation American - He has something to say when he hears people arguing about immigration and he remembers stories about his grandfather working three jobs to bring his mom and her brothers and sisters to this country. 
Science Fiction Fan.
Pasadena native.
Movie buff.
Nerd, Geek, Otaku (take your pick).
Eldest Son of Ken & Merle.
Older Brother to Philip, Virginia and Kathleen.
Uncle to Melissa, Christopher, Stephen, Kenneth and Christian.  
Native Born California (for real, one of the few).
Pasadena Native.
Player-Manager of Erick’s Team in WGT Online Baseball. 
Etc., etc., etc...  There’s probably more clustered inside my head, waiting for something for them to take up to the microphone and have their say.  And there are others that are hiding in the corners, hoping they’ll not get called upon to say anything.  I don’t think I have many like that.  But you never know. 
Is this leading to anything?  Honestly, I don’t know.  This is one of those areas of consideration where I have more questions than answers.  How do I get this identity to win out over that one?  How do I make that one go away?  
I think societies have identities.  We live in “The One Superpower,” the “Greatest Country in the World,” the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.”  Those are the ones we acknowledge for ourselves.  For others we’re “The Great Satan.”  
I don’t think humanity has an identity yet.  Everyone one is “Human.”  We need identities to separate “Us” from “Them.”  Since we haven’t encountered any “Thems” yet, no verifiable proof of such an encounter anyway, we have no need for an “Us.”  
I recently asked people why they thought there was no direct evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence yet.  Given the sheer numbers of stars in the galaxy, and the fact that planets seem to be everywhere, and the amount of time that has passed since the universe came into being, you’d think SOMEONE would be out there SOMEWHERE and would have left at least a candy wrapper or something behind.  So why, I asked them, do you think it hasn’t been found?
The most common answer: “They don’t want to talk to us.”  Or, something to that effect.  
Hmm...  Maybe.  I have my own thoughts on this topic, which I’ll convey in an upcoming entry.  But I wonder how much of this same feeling is inside of the identities we choose for ourselves.  Picking something that others will wait to talk with, or at least be forced to deal with.  
Or maybe it’s like that Beetles song, “I am the Walrus.”  It’s like constellations in the sky.  We see something random and we just have to ascribe meaning to it.  
Or maybe not.