Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Future We Choose is Always Chosen Now.

I submitted my first story of 2016 this week.  It was on Thursday, for an anthology I'd been invited to submit a story to about what living in cities might be like within the next few decades.  The deadline to submit was 11:59 PM that night.  I got mine in with exactly 3 hours and 30 minutes to spare.  
It's a decent story.  I liked what I did.  I feel good about it.  And I resisted the urge to tinker with it and "make it better" in the time before the deadline.  I feel good about that, too.  
And now, it's time to move on to something else.  Yes! 

Uh...  Yeah...

My first thought when I emailed my story off was that this was the perfect time to set into motion a writing production schedule that I've always wanted to have.  Year after year, I've made the New Year's resolution to write and submit a story each month of the year.  Twelve new stories submitted by December.  
And year after year, I've come up short.  Last year, I am very ashamed to say, I did not submit a single new story at all.  Period.  None.  I can give myself the excuse that I had decided to focus on writing my novel, which took me until August to do, and then tried working on spec-script for an animated series a friend of mine is working on, which became permanently stalled when the production company changed what they were looking for AND decided they weren't going to accept unsolicited scripts any more.  
I could take that excuse, but it would still feel like one.  I know how I felt when I realized the fact of my non-submission status for last year.  "How can you call yourself a 'professional' writer?  How can you say you're aspiring to be one with a year like that?"
That was me speaking to myself in case you couldn't tell by the tone of my voice. 
But now, I've submitted.  I'm back in the saddle.  I have eleven more months ahead of me.  I can do this.  Now's the time to start.  In fact, I've ALREADY started.  All I'll be doing now is carrying on, continuing the momentum.  Striving along the path I've set for myself.  Or, using an analogy I used in a previous blog posting, digging away in the tunnel toward the future I'm carving for myself.  
All I have to do this weekend is pick the next project I'll be working starting Monday.  
Insert here a moment of silence, followed by the chirp-chirp-chirping of crickets in the dark.  
I am worried.  I recognize this as the first obstacle I need to overcome, so I'm saying it clearly, here and now, to identify it as such.  I'm worried that I might chose the wrong project to put my time into.  That, come February 29th, I'll be staring at my screen, no where near ready or willing to send something off, with the sense of someone feeling his house about to slide down the hill in a mudslide while he's still in it.  
Silly?  Yes.  But true?  As to what I'm worried about, yes.  
I have two basic choices here.  Pick something new.  A brand new idea for a story that I haven't tried writing yet.  Use its freshness as a shiny ball bouncing over the grass, with me being the puppy bounding after it.  
Or, the other choice, pick something I set aside to work on my novel.  A story where I've got a head start.  A rough draft to work from.  Something where finishing it to the point of getting a draft I can submit should be, SHOULD BE, I SAY, easier to do.  Something I could get done in two or three weeks and give me a head start on the project after that.  
If I could submit another story, my second story of the year, in that time frame, instead of worrying about sliding off the hill, the rumbling I would be feeling then would be that of the rocket I'd strapped to my ambition taking me up into the stratosphere of my creative dreams.  
Overblown?  Yes.  But a more positive image to have?  Certainly.  
As it is, I have three projects to choose from, one from the first category, two from the second.  Which one would be the best one, though, is making me turn in circles, like the previously alluded to puppy discovering its tale and leaving the shiny ball in the grass by its feet.  
The idea stems from my most recently published story, Robot Boss, which appeared in  Analog Magazine's March 2015 issue.  Since writing Robot Boss I've been thinking a lot about the increasing degree of automation in our lives, and what it could eventually do to us.  
The idea I have is set far into the future, in a time when EVERYTHING is automated.  Humans do nothing but exist.  The machines built by the machines built by the machines and computers we originally designed and built do all the things we were doing before, including sending out probes to explore and recover resources from outer space.  Humans have become something akin to gut bacteria, forming biomes inside the living, sentient ships traveling through space.  What would this future look like to someone with a perspective more like ours, an astronaut revived from his stasis pod a hundred years later than anticipated for instance?  
The other two possible projects are things I've worked on already.  One is a story about a man stranded on an alien world, an "info-pirate" come there to steal data that could be reproduced and sold in human space, who was abandoned for unknown reasons by his crew.  He now faces the choice of trying to survive on the planet until another human ship comes to the world, or trying to get a ride from a strange and dangerous looking aliens that have recently landed.  
This story was the one I was working on when I made the decision to get my novel rewritten and into the hands of alpha readers.  I recall thinking that I'd finally worked out the technical kinks in it when I shifted my focus to my novel.  
The other possible project is a bit more ambitious, and daunting.  
It's a story centered around the last days of Edgar Allan Poe and what "really" happened.  In case you're not aware, in September of 1849, Poe left Richmond to go to New York to secure funds to start his own literary magazine, which he planned to call "The Stylus."  Three days later, after missing his New York appointment, he was found in Baltimore.  Staggering about, possibly drunk, possibly having been beaten, wearing someone else's clothing, incoherently mumbling about someone named, "Mr. Reynolds," who did not correspond to any acquaintance of his known to anyone.  The doctor that oversaw his care until his death described the cause as a "swelling of the brain."  
This was the story I submitted to have reviewed at the WorldCon in Montreal in 2009.  The editor and professional writer that reviewed it pretty much panned it.  But the editor, who I discovered later had edited a collection of stories inspired by the work of Poe, pointed to one passage in my story where, she said, I'd "nailed it."  She said that it read "exactly as if" Poe had written it, and it was the passage that made her hope I would continue working on the piece.  
Is seven years too long to make that hope come true.  It is the story I imagine winning a Hugo and/or Nebula for writing.  Is that reason, that weight of anticipation, a reason to give it another try, or reason to set it aside and get my desire process under my built.  
Choices suck.  It renews my wish for life to have a rewind button.  I'd use it to pick one of these projects to work on for a month, rewind, pick the second, rewind again, then the third, THEN go back and pick the one that comes out the best.  
But, we can't do that.  There's no way to know which would be the best choice to work on now.  I could find myself on February 29th, pounding my desktop with both fists, staring at the gibberish on my screen that is nowhere near ready to be sent to anyone, and THAT STILL MIGHT BE THE BEST RESULT OF THE THREE.  
But I would never know it.  Even thinking this way assumes there is a "right answer" to questions like this.  All I can see in my particular tunnel is the rock face before me, while hefting the pickax of my decision in hand. 
Maybe my first choice I should make is to just accept that part of life for what it is, and pick whatever I think would be the most fun to work on now.  

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Surprises in the Tunnel

There were some surprises this week.  That's for sure.  Things revealed as we excavated the future.  
That's how I'm thinking of it now.  Last week, I wrote a bit about the road we're all on.  How the road only exists in the past, something we see when we look over our shoulder.  When we look ahead, we're staring into a blank wall.  A block of obsidian that stretches to infinity before us.  We can look into only a fraction into its depths, the equivalent of the next moment in time.  We hammer a chunk from the wall with each passing second, revealing what we couldn't see before and showing us another jagged face of future ahead of us.  
With this metaphor, the road becomes a tunnel.  We can see the light of our beginning far behind us.  We can see how it wound and dipped its way around the obstacles we encounter, or maybe cut straight through them.  
I have a week's worth of tunnel behind me since the last time we posted.  Some unexpected artifacts, left by the denizens of tomorrow, have fallen from the face I've been excavating like some prospector in time, or an archeologist of civilization to be.  Things I didn't expect.  
I was told by a writer friend of mine that she has decided to stop writing fiction.  This was a surprise.  It sounded like a decision made some time ago, now settled.  This wasn't recent news from the way she wrote about it in her email.  It was done.  Finished.  She had already moved on.  Her tunnel had encountered something and she veered in a different direction.  That way.  
She'll still be writing but in a non-fiction sort of way.  We'll still be friends, but more like two members of related tribes.  Different clans that split at the pass during their migrations.  She went into the valley to hunt game.  I am still laboring to climb over the range and find the Enchanted City I was told beyond it.  
I haven't replied to her message yet.  "Ok.  I see," is too clipped and short.  A diatribe extorting her to reconsider and rejoin me on the quest seems useless.  She is not one to make such decisions lightly.  If she reads this, she should no that my silence is due to uncertainty more than neglect.  Good luck in reaching whatever depths your tunnel takes you.  Guess I'm going at this more alone than before.
Chisel, chisel, hammer, hammer, hammer.  
I've been a bit taken aback by the news about North Korea.  Their "hydrogen bomb" test just sort of popped out of the rock face.  It was like a dangerous fissure that could collapse and bring the mountain down on top of us.  Meetings were called for.  Sanctions were demanded.  Hammer-hammer-hammer, whack-whack-whack.  
What took me aback the most wasn't the test itself.  We know this pariah country has these devices, along with missiles to launch them and submarines to carry those missiles.  What surprises me the most is how little excitement it seems to be generating.  It's become part of the background of things.  Terrorists attack.  Oil prices fall.  North Korea sets off one of its nukes.  We shrug.  We go on.  
I'm thinking that they probably ran out of money to pay for food for their people.  So rather than reform their government and economy to one where people might actually be able to survive and thrive, they set off a bomb.  Other countries meet.  We call upon them to stop.  Aid is sent in exchange for promises they have no intention of keeping.  They start building the bomb for the next test once the aid money runs out.  
I watch the fissure closely for poisonous gases to erupt out.  I dig my way forward, wondering what else will appear.  
This was a funny one.  A guy I know, a guy from Tehran, sells things on eBay.  He's done this for years.  I've seen him collect boxes to ship the things he sells.  He goes around, both on line and in person, to find things he things he can sell then ships them off to the people he finds to buy them.  
I have a baseball with the signatures of the 1988 World Series winning Dodgers on it sitting prominently on my desk he gave me.  It's not their real signatures.  It looks like something they sold at the stadium the following year, with copies of the player's handwriting on it.  I like it though.  He got it in a box of stuff he bought at an auction and didn't think he could sell it.  He gave it to me because he knew I was a fan.  
What startled me to learn was how much stuff he sells.  A lot!  I mean...  I'd love to give the figure, but I'm thinking now to refrain...  Let's just say that it isn't play money, right?  A person could live on that amount.  
Now I know that's not his profit, he paid for the stuff he sells, plus more for shipping, his eBay account I'm sure, things like that.  But I had always passed it off as a hobby.  A little thing.  The tiny chip or stone sticking out of the wall of the tunnel is leading edge of a huge boulder.  Wow.  
It makes me wonder about what I should be doing.  All of this does.  These surprising things.  About world events.  About the feeling that my clans numbers are shrinking.  About not being as energetic in pursuing my goals as this guy from Tehran is in selling the stuff he finds.  
There's no conclusion as of yet.  No understanding.  Just the discovery of things I didn't know were there.  A lot more to come, I'm sure.  
But I do know that it's all connected someone how.  To me, if nothing else.  Everything that happens is connected to me.  Just as everything that happens is connected to you, person besides myself reading this.  We just have to figure out where the veins run through the rock of time we are chiseling our way through.
Hammer, hammer, chisel, chisel.  Digging my way along.  

Saturday, January 02, 2016

What Japanese Movies Taught Me About NOT Making Resolutions

This is the time of year I usually make and blog about my New Year resolutions.  But, I'm not going to do that this year.  
And it's because of a couple of Japanese movies I saw last night.  
I've been struggling with the idea of what resolutions I might make this year.  Mainly because the ones I wanted to make are pretty much the same ones I've made every year.  To go to Japan.  To get more published.  To find "someone."  
I burned myself a bit when I realized last week that I had not submitted a single story to a publisher last year.  Ouch.  Sure, I spent half a year working on my novel, then spent some time working on a spec-script, which I stopped after learning the producer was no longer accepting spec-scripts.  There were reasons.  But my resolution to get more published clearly had gone out the window.  
I will be going to Japan this year, but that was only prompted by the realization that returning "someday" meant never going there again, and that I couldn't depend on other people to give me a reason for going.  
This was the primer for the conclusion I came up with yesterday. Which started from a couple of lines of a poem featured in one of the movies I watched. 
It was called, "Oppai Volleyball," staring one of my favorite actresses, Haruka Ayase.  In case you don't know, the word, "oppai" in Japanese refers to female breast.  It is used in the same way "boob" or "tits" are used in English.  And if you don't know who Haruka Ayase is, let me assure you that, yes, she is curvaceous and often appears in comedies where her beauty is a factor, though I must also add that she IS a very talented actress with some serious dramatic chops as well.  
Ms. Haruka's character is a new teacher at a Jr. High School.  At her introduction ceremony, she is telling the students about the poem that inspired her to become a teacher.  As the movie goes on, we learn that she had been expelled from school for shoplifting, forced to attend class alone after everyone had left, and was given a series of books to read and write a report on.  She spent most of her time doodling in the margin of most of the books, but a collection of poems, and this poem in particular, caught her attention.
The poem is a real one, by a poet named Koutarou Takamura, and is called "Journey" (道程、どうてい in English, "doutei").
Here is the entire poem for reference: 
My translation: 
Before me, there is no road. 
Behind me, the road is made.
Ah!  It’s only natural.
It’s Dad.
The father, so vast above me, that made me stand on my own.
The one who watched me close, never taking his eye from me
And poured his vigor into me.
For this long journey. 
For this long journey.
It is the first two lines of the poem that make their appearance in the movie.  Ms. Haruka's character expresses her interpretation that there are no roads in life.  The future is uncharted territory for all of us.  Adding my own metaphors, it is like a jungle, dark and impenetrable, or a rock face deep in the earth.  The only road or tunnel that is made is the one we see behind us, marking the path we took to get to where we are right now.  
As it did Haruka's character, this idea struck me.  It was, "only natural" as the poem itself said.  None of us have been to the future.  So how can we find a path or way to go through it.  It is virgin territory, the future is.  A place none of us have been.  We create the path we take by making it.  It appears behind us with each step we take. 
This was part of the mindset I'm adopting.  The rest of it came from another movie I watched called, "100 Yen Love."  
This movie was different from most Japanese films I watch, which tend to be very imitative of Hollywood pictures, with attractive, or at least interesting and unique people, and neat story lines.  100 Yen Love had more of an independent film feel to it, with normal looking people leading messy lives going in odd directions.  
The film gets its name from the main character job.  The main character is a woman in her early 30's, still living at home, no job or prospects at the start of the film, who goes so far as to say she's "given up her femininity."  Her divorced sister returns to their parents' home with her son.  The two sisters fight all the time, forcing the protagonist to leave in a huff.  To survive, she takes a job at the 100 Yen store (similar to the American 99 Cents Store) where she buys her snacks.  
Along the way to the 100 Yen Store where she works is a boxing gym, where she sees an older boxer working out.  She is fascinated by his workouts and eventually a relationship starts up between them.
This is not a sweet little romance, though.  All sorts of crap happens to this woman, including being raped by a co-worker after work, and the relationship with the boxer doesn't go well.  Soon, the woman is training at the gym herself, trying to get her own bouts in the ring.  
There is something written on the outside wall of the gym, next to its entrance: 
With those fists punch through the world.  
The sentence is written as in imperative.  A "Just Do it!" sort of command.  The obstacle is there before you and you have to fight your way through it, and your tools are the two clenched fists by your side.  
This suited the woman's situation the first time she stepped through the gym and signed up for training.  And it's the attitude that informed her subsequent transformation.  
It also attached itself to the concept from the poem, "Journey."  There is no path before me.  Only the obstacle of time.  So...  I need to punch my way through.  Grab the future, the chunk ahead of me, my fist filled with the next moment, and pull it out of the way.  Step forward into the future.  There is only one way to go.  
I am not against the idea of goals.  I am not even saying resolutions are bad.  It is a good idea to express your desires, to say, "This is what I want out of life.  This is the direction I need to go."  It was Socrates, I believe, that said the, "Unexamined life is not worth living."  You have to look at where you are to know where you want to go.
But I think I've been missing the component of action too much.  Or maybe I've been thinking too far ahead.  I've been operating under the belief that by knowing my goals, whenever or wherever they might be, my subconscious would automatically direct me toward them.  
I am finding that to be lacking now.  I may want to go to Japan in April, but it's now that I have to buy tickets, make reservations, contact friends to see if they're available for a visit.  I may want to get my novel publish, and earn my living as a professional writer, but it's now that I have to come up with ideas, write them up, edit and polish and then send them out.  
Last night, after having the idea of making my own road come to me, I sat down at my computer to write.  It was late, about 7:30 PM.  I've always told myself I couldn't write at night.  Not unless I was someplace different, like the library or at a Starbucks.  My attention was too fractured.  I was too tired from the day.  Research was about the only thing I was good for then.  I wrote in the mornings, right when I got up.  
"This is the moment you have before you," I told myself.  "You didn't write today.  So make a road to writing now."  And, I did.  About 1,300 words on the story I was working on.  I even found myself liking them when I was done.  
As I write this blog entry, I can look over my shoulder at that strip of road behind me.  A step's worth.  
But as they say in China (or in Japanese movies), that's a start.