Monday, September 6, 2021

The Existential Detective


The hardboiled detective, i.e., that cynical, grimy tough guy who acknowledges the corruption of the world he lives in and strives to overcome it, is an existentialist figure, although he would scoff at the idea that he is the embodiment of the work of early twentieth-century egg-headed European philosophers and other intellectual heavyweights.

Existentialism begins with the idea that human life is essentially meaningless, even absurd, and without inherent value or purpose. Existentialists see the world as naturally corrupt, violent, and chaotic. 

Sounds pretty bleak, doesn't it? I mean, in a dark, corrupt, violent world that is devoid of any order or purpose, why go on? What's the point? Might as well give up, right?

Not so fast, there, Sunshine! Existentialist philosophers declare that the individual human, having no assigned or divine purpose, is free to create his own meaning and reason for existing. Starting at a point of existential angst, where the individual realizes that existence is a purely random event rather than the result of any sort of plan, divine or otherwise, the individual refuses to be overwhelmed by the inherent meaningless of existence, but rather accepts responsibility for carving out his own purpose for existing. The individual accepts the world for what it is, but strives to overcome the darkness and shine a little light, knowing that failure is likely, maybe even inevitable, but trying anyway because it is the striving that makes him human.

And that brings us to our dogged hardboiled hero. Surrounded by injustice and immorality, jaded cops and corrupt city officials, slimy blackmailers and scheming femme fatales, and mayhem, mystery, and murder around every corner, the stalwart loner with the steely eyes and the iron jaw keeps plowing forward, searching for answers and struggling to plant a tiny seed of order in the chaos. Will he solve the mystery? Probably. Will the results bring him satisfaction? Probably not much, if any. He might not even get paid. He probably won't get the girl, who was only playing him anyway. And along the way, he'll probably get shot at, beat up, and scorned by pompous elitists as a dirty little man in a world that has no use for him. 

So why does he do it? Because that's who he is. It's his self-imposed reason for existing. He dedicates himself to his purpose, striving not for money or love, but for professionalism.

He'll spend most of his life in his own company, drinking alone and too much, pondering the irrationality of human existence, and questioning his own motivations. And then another desperate client will walk into his office with another sad story and no money. He'll knock back the last of his drink, pick up his gun, and step out into the dark mean streets that he's come to know so well, seeking something he knows he'll never find, content to continue the search.

Note: Please excuse the lack of variety in my pronouns. I blame the limitations of the English language, and I mean no disrespect to anybody. Our hardboiled hero can as easily be any one of the forty-plus genders gaining recognition these days, but until we get an acceptable universal pronoun, I'm sticking with the traditional ones, strictly for convenience.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Putting "The News" in Perspective


I was on a walk with my wife a couple of days ago, and we ran into a woman feeding pigeons on the pier. She was very into it, hunched over a flock of grounded pigeons (and one seagull), and parceling out measured scoops of some sort of grain, which the birds were happily gobbling up. I took the shot you see above with my phone. Unfortunately, the birds started to scramble away just as I took the picture, but I still got most of them. We passed by, the woman smiled, and the birds all came back for more goodies. We continued on our walk.

It struck me when I came on the scene that this was an important moment in that woman's day (and certainly in the birds' day, too). She was clearly enjoying the sight of the pigeons eating the grain she provided, and the smile on her face indicated that she was enjoying her time on the pier on that cloudy Monterey summer morning.

Here's the thing: this moment will never in a million years be reported on any broadcast news show, locally, nationally, or internationally. It won't be in any of the local newspapers, either. If you were to ask a representative of the media why, they would tell you that a woman feeding birds on the pier is not news.

Respectfully, I disagree.

If "THE NEWS" is supposed to be a collection of the important things that happened in our lives that day, then the moment you see pictured above is as much "THE NEWS" as anything you'll watch on television or listen to on the radio tonight or read in the paper tomorrow morning. It's just as real, and it's just as important. In fact, it's more representative of the important things that happened in the world that day than anything you'll see broadcast as "THE NEWS."

We get a badly distorted image of human life on "THE NEWS." If aliens from outer space were to study earthly life from a distance with "THE NEWS" as their only source, they would get a horribly inaccurate picture of what life on earth is really like. Because at any given time, more people are doing something mundane and routine than anything that is being reported by the news media. But you'd never know that if your only source of information about earthly life was "THE NEWS." 

Now, I'm not saying that the stories and features reported on "THE NEWS" aren't important. They are. And I have extremely strong opinions about many of the issues that the media covers. I mean, EXTREMELY strong. But these mundane and routine things? They are at least as important as the stories and features on "THE NEWS," and, in many ways, even more important. Why? Because they occupy far more or our daily lives than the so-called "bigger" issues covered by the news media. If you were to ask anyone RIGHT NOW what is most on their minds, chances are it would be something like, "How am I best going to be able to satisfy my personal need or desire?" or "What can I do to improve a personal or social relationship?" or "How should I spend the next portion of my day or night?" rather than "What about climate change, Afghanistan, the pandemic, or that politician I hate?" 

Again, don't misunderstand or misrepresent me: those "bigger" issues are extremely important. But they are not ALL-important, or even the most important. Not to the vast majority of people, not to me, and, probably, if you're honest, not to you. You might be concerned about the "bigger" issues, and you probably should be, but you've got other things you've got to take care of, and those other things are more important to you at this particular moment than the "bigger" issues. Yes, they really are, and, yes, they really, really should be.

But people get very depressed worrying about the "bigger" issues. Why? Because you can't solve them. The best you can do is contribute to a solution and hope for the best. Go ahead and do those things at first opportunity. But every minute spent worrying about these "bigger" issues is a minute of your life you'll never get back, and, worse, a minute spent dying rather than living. You only get a finite number of these minutes, so try to use most of them well. Spend most of your day taking care of the mundane and routine tasks in front of you. You (hopefully) have more power to do something useful about those things, and, probably, those are the things you're most concerned about anyway. Which is how it should be. 

(An aside: I'm talking about the majority of people. I understand that some people may be more personally and directly involved in these "bigger" issues, in which case this blog entry may be meaningless for you. I'm shooting this out to the world, and I recognize that my message is more relevant to some than to others. If you're getting nothing out of this blog entry, please ignore it and proceed with your day. I wish you all the best.)

It's a nice day out on the pier, and the birds are hungry. You've got grain, and you've got time. Feed them. (By the way, I'm speaking metaphorically. If feeding birds isn't your idea of a good time, then substitute your own personal equivalent.) Enjoy yourself. It will be the most important thing you do in that moment. It might even be the most important thing you do in that day. Or that week. Or that year. For most of us, it will likely be more important to us as individuals than anything broadcast in "THE NEWS."

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Stop Killing your Neighbors--Get Vaccinated!


The maps above show the out-of-control surge of Covid-19 outbreaks in the United States over the past month. It's insane. And it shouldn't be out of control. It could be stopped if everyone got vaccinated and temporarily observed some emergency measures, such as wearing a mask in public. But for insane reasons, about a third of the people in this country are refusing to resist the spread of Covid. If you are one of them, then you are, at the very least, guilty of attempted murder. I was going to say negligent homicide, but with all of the information available you are no longer merely negligent, you are actively threatening to kill everyone you encounter. You know what you are doing, and you're fine with it.

I'd list some facts here, facts about the number of people who have died from Covid or Covid-related consequences, facts about the number of hospitals who no longer have beds available in their intensive-care units, facts about the resurging numbers of Covid cases resulting from the lifting of mask mandates and the reopening of schools and other businesses. But it would be useless. You anti-vaxxers don't care about facts. You deny evidence that contradicts what you want to be true, and you make up facts to support your selfish fantasies.

You anti-vaxxers like to talk about freedom, by which you mean your right to be free to infect and kill anyone you come into contact with. The freedom of others doesn't matter to you. Their right to live doesn't matter to you. You'd rather kill others than get a shot or wear a mask. 

Quite frankly, I think that the real reason a lot of you aren't getting vaccinated is that you are afraid of needles. Suck it up. Grow up. Stop being a child. No, that's a disservice to children. Even children have more courage than you do.

If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, and you are refusing to be vaccinated, unfollow me. Right now. I won't miss you. 

And don't try to engage me on this issue. I'm not interested in discussing this topic with you. There is nothing to discuss. I don't support your right to kill. You have no right to kill. It's not one of your freedoms. If you post an anti-vaxxer comment on this blog, I will delete it. If you post an anti-vaxxer comment on any of my social media accounts, I will block you. I don't care about your poisonous opinion. Share it with your friends, because you are no friend of mine.

The spread of Covid is currently out of control. It shouldn't be. We beat polio in this country. We have measles under control. Smallpox and bubonic plague are almost entirely eradicated. The latter three diseases have wiped out entire populations, but we have no reason to worry about them anymore. Why? Because people willingly got themselves vaccinated to eliminate the spread of those diseases. We could do it with Covid, too, if a third of Americans weren't actively homicidal.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Short-Story Challenge


I haven't read a lot of short stories. If a book is less than 300 pages, I'm reluctant to pick it up. I want a story with some meat in it, something I can sink my teeth into. I've always thought of short stories as individual M&Ms. They just don't seem to be worth the effort. 

Recently, though, I've read some short stories that I really enjoyed. Assaph Mehr's Aquae et Ignis, from the Togas, Daggers, and Magic series featuring Felix the Fox, was extremely entertaining, and every bit as satisfying to read as the two novels in the series. Weighing in at more than 60 pages, it's fairly lengthy for a short story, but it's certainly shorter than what I usually read. I also read a short story by Bobby Matthews called The Big Gamble a couple of weeks ago that was less than 10 pages long (you can find it online). I enjoyed it very much! 

The short story is a whole different art form than the novel. Okay, I'm sounding like Captain Obvious here, but this difference in expression is something I'm starting to appreciate for the first time. As a result, I'm wondering whether I should try producing a short story of my own. I've got a few ideas, and I'm tempted to give it a go one of these days. 

So I've been thinking about the differences between writing a novel and writing a short story. One of the things I like about writing novels is developing plots, settings, and characters. I like to build a story, one brick at a time, and watch it come together. You can't do that with a short story. You've got to establish a story situation with just a few choice words and sentences.  

By the way, do yourself a favor and google Duvay Knox and take a look at his flash fiction. He can put you into the middle of a story in less than ten words! It's truly remarkable!

In writing a short story, do you give up plot, setting, and character development? I don't think you do. I think you simply have to find a way to do it quickly. I'm kind of excited about giving it a try. I can see how that would improve my writing in longer stories. 

The one piece of advice I've heard about writing short stories that resonates most with me is that short stories are like good jokes: they provide a meaningful setup that builds quickly to a devastating punch line. Short stories are a little like poetry, too, in that every word has to count, and every sentence has to move the story. 

Back in school, if I was assigned a five-page paper, I wrote ten. When I was assigned a twenty-page paper, I wrote forty. Paring my thoughts down to the minimum is a challenge for me. 

I wonder if I can do it. I owe it to myself to find out. That lone M&M might be the best one in the bag!

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

I wrote a Tweet....


It's been an interesting couple of days.

Two days ago, I had 68 followers on Twitter. I read a couple of Tweets from a couple of people in their late 30s or early 40s who said that they had initially been disappointed when they had failed in their goal of having a novel published by the time they were 35. They had gotten over their disappointment and were continuing to try, realizing that missing their artificial self-imposed deadline didn't actually mean that they still couldn't accomplish their goal. I thought that was cool, and I was inspired to write the Tweet at the top of this page. Then I sent it and left to go start a workout on my treadmill.

After I finished my workout and got out of the shower, I returned to my computer and pulled up my Twitter page. I checked my notifications and discovered that my post had more than 20 likes, which is more than any of my previous 400 posts had received. I also had a handful of new followers. A couple of people commented on the post and said that it was inspiring. I was pleased that my message had received a positive reaction. 

I spent the next four hours or so working on my book. I had a productive day, writing 2700 words, which is a lot for me. A normal day is about 1200, so I was feeling pretty good about it. When I was done, I checked back with Twitter and was astonished to discover that my Tweet was taking off. I was approaching 100 likes, and I now had more than 80 followers. I was thinking that I might have 100 followers by the time I went to bed that night. 

To make a long story short, it's been two days, and my Tweet has generated more than 8 million impressions and more than 550,000 engagements. It has been liked more than 180,000 times. I now have more than 4,200 followers, and as I write this post I'm picking up a new one about every 30 seconds. They are coming in from all parts of the world. Screenshots of my Tweet have made it over to Instagram, and the number of my Instagram followers has increased from 40-something to more than 1,300 last I checked. It's official--my Tweet has gone viral!

My tweet has also generated thousands of comments, and almost all of them have been positive. I have only read a fraction of them, because if I tried to keep up I wouldn't have time to do anything else. Let me just say that I am overwhelmed by the number of people who say that they have been inspired by my message, and who have thanked me for posting it. To all of you, I say thank you for responding, and I'm overjoyed that you have been inspired or encouraged by my Tweet. 

Some people have been insulted by my Tweet, or responded negatively. That's fine. You have your reasons, and I respect them. I'm genuinely sorry that you were negatively affected by my message. All the best to you. Many of you missed the point of my Tweet, so allow me to clarify. The entire point of my Tweet is that if you haven't achieved what you wanted from your life yet, there is still time, even if you have passed some artificially imposed deadline. That's it. That's as far as my message goes. You can agree or disagree, but my message has no broader meaning than that.

So, here it is: my fifteen minutes of fame. I don't expect it to last, but while I'm riding the wave I feel that I need to make a couple of comments.

First, everything in my Tweet is true. I didn't make any of it up. I don't find it all that remarkable myself, it's just stuff I've done.

Second, a few people have responded to my Tweet by asking me to help them with their personal problems. I appreciate your need, but I'm the wrong person to ask. I have no expertise in mental health issues, and any aid I attempt to offer would probably do more harm than good. To anyone who needs help with depression, my only advice is to seek it from someone qualified to give it. Sorry I can't do more. I wish you the best.

Third, I've received a number of requests for interviews or to participate in discussions or to join one group or another. I appreciate the offers, but I must respectfully decline. My days are already filled, and my book isn't going to write itself. 

What book you ask? Why, I'm glad you asked! [NOTE: What follows is a shameless self promotion. If you don't want to read it, feel free to skip to the last paragraph.] I'm currently at work on Book 4 of my noir urban fantasy series featuring hardboiled private investigator Alexander Southerland as he navigates the gritty mean streets of Yerba City (a fictional, fantasy version of San Francisco) amidst trolls, gnomes, dwarfs, an elf, a were-rat, femme fatales with gills, corrupt cops, street gangs, and other dark fantasy nastiness. The first three books, in order, are A Troll Walks into a Bar, A Witch Steps into My Office, and A Hag Rises from the Abyss. The tentative title for my fourth book is The Night Owl Slips into a Diner. The books are available from Amazon and from Kindle Unlimited. Caution: violence, unhealthy personal habits, and the kind of language that used to get mouths washed out with soap.

So it's been a wild ride. In the course of writing this blog entry, I've received 49 more followers on Twitter and 37 more on Instagram. It's actually slowing down a little. By the end of the week, I'll be just another forgotten trend. That's okay. That's the world we live in, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

This was the one!

 I was thinking about books I've read in my life that had the most influence on my reading habits, and then later on, my writing. My favorite book of all time regardless of genre is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. It never fails to make me shake my head and wonder why I am laughing when what I'm feeling is anger at the absurdity and hypocrisy of, well, just about everything. The works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler introduced me to the world of hardboiled crime fiction, and I've never been the same. If you've read my books, then you can see how much I love the noir style of fiction. William Gibson's Neuromancer revolutionized science fiction (at a time when the genre badly needed it) and introduced me to the wonderful world of cyberpunk, for which I am grateful. I'm a big fan of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, and recently I've been bowled over by Michael R. Fletcher's grimdark novels (although I think that my happy childhood and overall absence of significant trauma in my life may keep me from ever trying to write in that genre). 

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny and J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings were the books that gave me a passion for fantasy, and that remains my favorite genre of literature. 

But the root of my love for fantasy goes back a little farther, back to when I was a precocious little seven-year-old in the second grade. That's when I somehow got my hands on a little tome published in 1943 called Giants and Witches and a Dragon or Two, a collection of fairy tales that had not been watered down and reconstituted in order to make them safe for sensitive children (and adults). I'd heard fairy tales before, and loved them--but I'd never read anything like this collection of brutal little gems! I couldn't get enough! Vicious giants that ground the bones of children into bread, evil cackling witches who delighted in cruelty, dangerous dragons that set towns on fire--I was thrilled! 

I was so thrilled, in fact, that I repeated the stories I'd read to my parents. In great detail. They were...less than thrilled. I don't recall what they told me exactly, but, the gist of it was that they started paying a little more attention to my reading matter. To their everlasting credit, they always encouraged me to read, and they never actually censored my reading material, but they liked to know what I was putting into my head, and they encouraged me to engage in open discussions of material they considered to be sensitive. I guess I couldn't ask for more than that.

G&W&ADO2 is still in print and available, although it's hard to imagine that children today would run across it as easily as I did back in 1959 (as I recall, it was in our school library). Maybe that's a good thing, I don't know. But I don't think that these stories hurt me in any way. Did they give me nightmares? I don't remember. Maybe. If so, I got over them. Did they make me want to go out and commit acts of violence and cruelty? Absolutely not! In fact, I'm convinced that the stories in this volume fired my imagination in ways that changed me for the better. I can't say for sure, but I don't know that I'd be writing fantasy--or any other type of fiction--today if I hadn't read these stories more than sixty years ago, and, for that, I'm glad I found them.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Plotting and pantsing


I didn't know that I was a pantser when I wrote my first novel. That's because I had never heard the term. I started learning the jargon of writing only after I finished writing a book. It was only then that I learned that there are two approaches to writing fiction: plotting and pantsing.

Most writers plot their books ahead of time with some form of outlining. Many such authors--plotters--follow their outlines closely, while others treat their outlines as mere suggestions, but plotters prefer to construct a complete outline before they set out to write their stories. 

Pantsers, in contrast, write without a detailed plan. They probably have a setting and a character or two, and maybe they have some vague ideas about scenes, lines, or plot twists, but they proceed without a clear idea of how the story is going to unfold. Some pantsers simply try out a few opening lines until they find one they like, and then take off from there, introducing characters as needed and letting the story write itself. That's how I wrote A Troll Walks into a Bar. I didn't even know what genre I was going to try! I wrote an opening sentence that I liked, and then I just kept going until I had a finished story. The genre, setting, characters, and plot came together as I wrote it.

"Pantser" comes from the old pilot's term, "flying by the seat of one's pants," or flying without instruments. I like being a pantser because I enjoy the excitement of not knowing what's going to happen next. I like not knowing who the murderer is until the end of the book--even when I'm the one writing the book! In Troll, I didn't know who was going to be murdered until I realized that the story had reached a point where a murder needed to happen. I reached the next to the last chapter before I realized who had committed the murder. 

The trick to pantsing is being unafraid to go back into the story and retrofit it so that it leads to the point where you've taken it. That means adding details to previous passages, changing scenes, or even adding chapters to the middle of the story. My approach to my most recent book, A Hag Rises from the Abyss, was completely chaotic. The first scene I wrote doesn't actually appear until Chapter Seventeen. What I thought was going to be Chapter Ten ended up spread over Chapters Twenty-One and Twenty-Two. The golfing scene I'd written for the middle of the book wound up totally rewritten as the climactic scene near the end of the book. I didn't know what I was going to do with the Huay Chivo until I did it, and then I had to go back and rewrite most of his earlier appearances. 

It sounds like work--but it's one-hundred percent fun!

Plotters like to say that pantsing leads to a lot of wasted time. I respect their opinion, but I don't agree with it. I mean, what's the hurry? Of course, I'm retired and self-published, so I don't have any deadlines except the ones I place on myself. But it took me about three months to write the first drafts of each of my three books, and I rarely spend more than four hours a day writing. That seems like a pretty good pace to me. 

As a self-proclaimed pantser, I actually end up with an outline (sort of). That's because after I write a scene, I summarize it in my notes. That's how I keep track of everything I've written and keep it all connected in a coherent storyline. When I'm done with the book, I've got an outline, but the outline is actually a detailed recap. Plotters would say that I'm doing it backwards, I suppose, but it works for me.

And that's the point. The bottom line is that there is no one right approach to writing. Plotters gotta plot and pantsers gotta pants. But neither is there any reason to adopt one approach and stick with it. You want to plot out a partial outline and then pants the rest? Go for it. You want to freestyle the first five chapters and then outline the rest of the story? Sounds good to me. You want to plot one book and pants another? Why not? The idea is to write a good book. How you do it is up to you.