Thursday, December 18, 2008

Why I Hate Drivers And Cyclists, Plus A Bonus Stupid Tough Guy Moment

These were done from other artist's works and from photographs.


There's an old Peanuts cartoon where (I believe) Linus cries out, "I love mankind, it's people I can't stand!" I'm the exact opposite. I can't look at a crowd without contemplating extermination but almost every person I've known I've been able to regard with affection and respect. If only I could make up my mind...

So yesterday I was walking to the comic store when I had an unpleasant experience. I walk pretty much everywhere. For reasons that will probably become clear to you I simply do not drive. Never have, most likely never will. And as a lifelong bicycle rider and pedestrian I've developed some pretty bad feelings about the whole idea of letting bald chimps control rapidly moving chunks of metal.

As a result, I'm pretty careful most of the time. So yesterday I was standing on a corner, waiting for the light to change. It did, I stepped into the street and immediately a car pulled directly in front of me, passing less than a foot from my body. I reflexively punched the passenger side window (thank god the car was so close -- I didn't have room to get in a solid blow and the last thing I need to do is pop another fucking knuckle) and the car whipped around the corner.

I turned to watch it and saw the driver pull over and start to park. At this point I'd entered into what I think of as a fugue state. This happens when I feel physically threatened and it might actually be a fugue state -- I haven't had it diagnosed. Sounds are very soft and language is just another sound and all that I'm thinking of is physics -- the movement of objects through space. The objects in question being my body and the source of the threat...

It's weird and disturbing to experience that condition. Afterwards it makes me feel like a shitty person because that semi-conscious state makes it difficult for me to exert responsible control over my behavior. It makes me feel as if I'm not really a person -- as if I'm just a potential event.

So when I see the car pull to the curb I turn and start drifting toward it. And as I approach the car pulls away from the curb and drives off and I come to and start cursing myself for losing it and cursing the driver for almost running me over.

A block later I've just started getting my nerves calmed down when the car pulls up next to me and the driver rolls down the passenger window.

"You wanna fight? You wanna fucking fight? Cause I'll get out right now if you want to fucking fight."

(Please note that at this point the engine was still running, which I interpreted as a signal of, shall we say, compromised intent. The gentleman in question might have had military or martial arts training -- but based purely on first impressions the idea of a fight between us was pretty damned silly. So he was actually showing a respectable degree of physical courage here, even if he did have to wind himself up to it.)

I lean in the window and speak in a clear, loud voice. Not quite shouting but not far from it. "You almost fucking ran me over, man. You just whipped right in front of me like you weren't even looking."

"I had the light!"

"No, you didn't. I was crossing in the crosswalk looking at a little green walking man."

"Well, you must have been looking across the street because I had the light."

I took a breath.

"Look. If it went down the way you say then I was wrong and I apologize. But it didn't. You weren't looking where you were going and you almost ran me over!"

"I'm a good driver! I look where I'm going!" He gestured to a child's car seat. "I have a kid!"

What that meant I do not know. Another deep breath, followed by the assumption of a diplomatic tone. "I didn't say you were a bad driver, I said you almost ran me over."

He deflated a little -- or maybe he just realized that he might not be acting the way he really wanted to, or that I wasn't acting the way he expected me to. "Well, if what you say happened is true then I apologize." Then he glares at me and gets excited all over again. "But you don't go fucking hitting people's cars, man!"

"Your car came this close to me, dude," I said, and held my fingers a few inches apart, then thumped my chest over the heart and made a panic-stricken face.

And the tension left his face. "Okay," he said. "Okay." And he held his hand out and we shook and he drove off.

I don't think he was a bad guy and I think he mostly believed what he said -- I hope that he had at least an inkling of the notion that I was in the right. I'm glad we talked it out and I'm glad that I was able to avoid being a complete asshole. I'm extra glad that I didn't get into a fight.


This is the second time in the last week a careless driver has come close to hitting me in circumstances where I've clearly had the right of way -- the other one was a young woman with a cell phone whose expression of sheer terror when she looked up and realized how close she came to creaming me was quite gratifying in a mean-spirited way.

I am sick of it. And when the guy who almost ran me over made his statement about not punching cars I almost lost it right there. How am I supposed to communicate to a driver that they have done something grossly, life-threateningly negligent in a way that makes them actually take notice? If I hadn't punched his car -- and I reiterate, it was a purely unconscious reaction -- he would have had no fucking idea that he had come very, very close to killing or injuring a pedestrian. I honestly think he was more upset about my striking his car than about any other aspect of the situation. What the fuck, people? If you care that much about your car, if you don't want to know when you've made a serious mistake, you are defective.

Cyclists, while certainly less threatening, are far worse in terms of attitude and behavior.

One of the reasons I stopped riding my bike was that I was finding it tiresome to stop at a stop sign and have a series of cyclists zip past me right through into traffic.

Once last summer when I stopped at a stop sign a truck crossing the intersection stopped and the driver yelled out his window, "That's the first time I've ever seen a bicycle stop at a stop sign! That's beautiful, man!"

And that's when I realized that one of the reasons drivers get so squirrely at intersections is because they're expecting me to just shoot through and they don't know how to deal with someone on a bicycle who at least tries to obey the law.

There's been a new trend I've noticed lately -- cyclists talking on their cell phones. Sometimes they're in traffic, sometimes they're on the sidewalk. They never wear helmets. Why can't we just harvest their organs now before they get all bruised?

Why aren't I allowed to club cyclists on the sidewalk right to the fucking ground? Why don't they call out or ring a bell when passing from behind? You know who's the worst for this? Bicycle cops. Go figure.

It seems as though everyone on wheels has a sense of entitlement. They all think they're special bunnies and everyone else is wrong. Wrong and IN THEIR WAY.

I'm at the point where I don't really believe in good drivers or cyclists anymore. No matter how nice a person you are the odds are pretty good that when you are operating a vehicle you are going to act like a jerk every so often -- but when being a jerk means threatening the lives and well-being of the people around you, well. That's a little past carelessness. People aren't fit to drive and the death toll on the roads bears this out.

It would be just ducky if there were enough pedestrians to be able to organize and politicize -- but there aren't. There just aren't.

So all I can do is hate. Look at you in your cars and on your bikes and on your skateboards fucking risking lives for the sake of a moment's convenience or a sense of power or entitlement or territory or out of sheer stupidity -- hell, I don't know what motivates the steaming monkey-mass as they steer blindly with one hand while sucking down a coffee and yapping on their cell phone.

Just know this. No matter how I might feel about you as individuals as contributing factors in this situation I hate you and I fear you -- and one of these days you'll probably run my ass over.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Just Because Nobody Can Understand Anything You Say..."

Huh... I believe I might be detecting an ongoing theme in my art. 's funny, it's not until I saw my Picasa page that I realized how obsessed with bones I am.

Mmm. Greasy delicious bones.

Well, I seem to see a pattern shaping up. I've written about dialog, I've written about plot. Now it's time to tackle prose.

When I tackled plot I confessed that I didn't have any real talent for storytelling. Prose is different. I'm good at prose. You may not know this since the prose here on the blog shuffles around barefoot wearing a pair of grease-stained sweatpants but I have a real knack for putting words together. Writers have commented on it, editors have commented on it, it's just the way it is. Please don't hate me for it. And please don't hate me for writing about style in my shitty internet prose.

When someone in my last writing class asked me how to sharpen their prose I was at a bit of a loss. And since then I've been thinking about how I'd really like to have answered that question. Here's a tentative start.

First off, you need to scout out the territory. You need to get a feel for how other people use words and you have to experiment with your own use of words. Here are some ideas to get you started.

You have to start with words. You have to really get a feel for the way words sound on their own. You have to understand what they mean. And it doesn't hurt to have some idea as to how the words came into being, what languages they come from, what the meaning of their root words are. I'm not an expert here by any means -- but what I do know frequently influences my decision as to what word to use where.

If you're at all unclear about a word then look it up -- and read the entire entire definition, including the etymology, related words, etc. When you go to the dictionary don't just jump in and out -- always take a few minutes to wander around and gather stray knowledge. It accumulates.

Of course words do not act alone. So the next thing to do is to read and study poetry, quotes, aphorisms, anecdotes, one-liners, etc. In these miniature formats the relationships between individual words are much more important than they are in prose. Read books of quotations and see how the great writers and speakers of English have handled phrases and sentences. How is meaning conveyed? How is emotion conveyed? Tone and atmosphere? How do a few words strung together tell us something deep about the nature of the person who wrote them?

Then write some poetry. I'm not a big fan of poetry and I'm not very good at writing it. But if I hadn't spent a good chunk of time reading and writing poetry my prose wouldn't be as fine and flexible as it is. Poetry is one of the best whetstones upon which to sharpen your blade. Read it slowly and savor the words and how they work together.

Write some aphorisms -- take an observation or a belief you hold and express it in a single sentence where meaning and grace are inextricably linked. Then write it another way and see if it works better. Do it again.

Write sentences of description -- how can you give the reader the object of your description as clearly as possible? Try describing the same things from two different perspectives -- in one you should focus on technical accuracy, in the other on evocation.

Describe a rock with so much precision that an artist could draw it recognizably from your description. Use your words to construct a diagram. Then describe the same rock (or sandwich or street scene or whatever) in a fashion intended to invoke in the reader the same emotional state or aesthetic reaction you had when you were looking at it. Or holding it. Or tasting or smelling it. Or throwing it at someone's car.

When it comes to longer pieces the only people who have the same passionate obsession with words as poets do are humorists. May I suggest spending some time with these writers -- S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Roy Blount Jr., Mark Leyner, and most especially Brian O'Nolan writing as Myles na gCopaleen. (Dorothy Parker you should be reading for poetry and one-liners, although her mean criticism is pretty damned good. Not to downplay her fiction -- it just falls out of the scope of this discussion.) Just reading his Catechism of Cliche will make you a better writer, guaranteed.

The reason for this is that humor demands precision if it is to work. Humor, as I've said in another essay, isn't a genre. It's an emotion, a reaction. A mental state. You know how some people can tell jokes and some people can't? Most of it comes down to timing. You need to hit a certain verbal and conceptual rhythm if you're gonna get someone to laugh -- humorists hit that rhythm with words and that takes skill. And that kind of skill rubs off.

Of course you should be reading as much good writing of all varieties as you can -- fiction, non-fiction, journalism, science, etc. -- but quotations, poetry, and humor are going to give you the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to improving your prose.

Now for a few principals. They didn't start with me -- but they're hoary old chestnuts because they're true. They're really, really true.

Say things as simply and directly as you can. This doesn't mean that everything you write should be simple and direct, though. If you need to write something obsure and convoluted get to it -- but do not make it any more obscure and convoluted than it absolutely has to be to deliver your message. Make things as minimal as you can while preserving your intended meaning to the full. (He yelled.)
One of those never-ending lessons is learning how to minimize the number of words you use. I'm still finding words and phrases used from habit in my work and when I remove them it makes for better prose.

And I'll go further then that. When my observational drawing skills are running hot I'll find myself looking at a phrase not as a verbal construct but as a visual one -- literally seeing the phrase on the page as a shape rather than a set of words -- and I'll know that the phrase in question takes up too much space for the meaning it conveys. You may not be able to do this but you can always ask yourself, "Is this phrase/word/sentence justified by the meaning it carries? Is there any way to reduce the amount of space it takes up on the page?"

Avoid modifiers as much as possible. Simple verbs and nouns are your friends -- adverbs are the enemy and adjectives are asshole friends, the kind you like even though they get you into trouble.

Never use adverbs for anything other than humorous effect -- and understand that modifier-heavy humor has become a cliche, particularly on the internet. It's fun to write, fun to read, and there are too damned many people working that side of the street. If a word ends in -ly regard it with grave suspicion. Instead, find the right verb. Don't make someone move quickly when they can run.

Minimize the use of adjectives. This isn't as hard and fast as the rule on adverbs but the same basic principal applies -- rather than using one word to modify another, find the proper word in the first place.

Now here's one that's open to debate. I would love to be the guy who really rocks his vocabulary, who regularly and cheerfully sends the reader off to the dictionary. That guy is a hero of mine.

But my time in writer's groups and classes has beaten that tendency right out of me -- and I think my writing's the better for it. Here's an example from an upcoming story of mine.

I initially described the attack of a flying creature as a 'stoop.' This is the precise term for what the creature was doing -- when a bird of prey folds its wings and drops onto its victim, that is a stoop. Everyone corrected it to 'swoop.' Because they sucked. Fucking ignorant troop of myopic mandrills.

But when I described the physical act rather than use the technical term it brought the passage to life -- and it made me realize that it's not a matter of simply using the smallest number of words, it's hitting that sweet spot where intended meaning and phrasing coincide.

And something that I've recently become aware of is the gerund. A gerund is a word modified by the -ing suffix. Work, working. Only use gerunds when they allow you the most graceful available phrasing -- and never ever use them in an action scene.

And, finally, here's a little story. When I was nineteen or twenty a friend of mine once got really, really mad at me and said something I think about every single time I sit down to write...

"Just because nobody can understand anything you say doesn't mean you're smart!"

Words to live by.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Blogcessive Compulsive: Two Thousand Hits!

Edmontosaurus annectens. This is both one of my first computer illustrations and one of my first dinosaur illustrations, done some time in the early nineties. It was a scanned pen-and-ink drawing rendered in an early version of Painter.

This one was a pencil drawing modified with both Painter and Photoshop. The background is an ink blot with a gradient replacing the grayscale. It was done right after I finished my vocational rehab, in the late nineties, 1998 or so. Hey, was that time? Whatever it was, it just flew by.

Some time after I finished this I saw Gregory Paul's skeletal diagram for the same animal I realized my version was drastically distorted. I went back and looked at the photograph I had worked from and found that it had been taken at a slight angle which really messed up the proportions.

No, wait a minute. This isn't an Edmontosaurus. This is a Lurdusaurus. Yeah, that's it. I did it this way on purpose. It's a Lurdusaurus. (Hey, anyone ever seen a skeletal diagram for Lurdusaurus? So how do you know I'm lying?)

Well, I had a swell day today. I went out for a hike with my dad and while we had to cut it short -- poor bastard was recovering from a bug and wound up getting tuckered but pronto -- we saw a pair of golden eagles and a bobcat. One of the best wild cat sightings I've had so far. (Speaking of cats, my music buddy Paul claims that he'll be able to get me some face time with a liger. Further details as they come.) I missed out on signing up for my statistics class so I'm taking digital photography next semester -- with any luck this means I'll be able to post photos from our hikes within the next couple of months. And then we had Chinese food for lunch instead of our usual burgers. The old man had beef stew over noodles and I had lamb and eggplant and we split a green onion cake. Ma Joong and Chiao Tai (see Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee novels -- guess I'll have to report on them at some point) used to have those for breakfast all the time. Mmmmmm. Greasy, gooey, crisp, and savory with scallions. The Chinese grilled cheese sandwich. My lamb and eggplant was in a sweet and sour garlic sauce that was muy tastey and the Da gave me all the chunks and sheets of gristle that enriched the broth of his stew. "I don't know where you came from," he said as he forked over the goods, "but here you are."

What can I say? Connective tissue rocks.

And then I come home and look at the old website. And, of course, I check out the numbers.

Man. Two thousand hits. Dag. How the hell did that happen? (Let's be serious. For weeks now I've been waiting for the hits to mount and I knew it was gonna happen... well, a few days from now. I sure wasn't expecting it today.) I guess all that internet networking stuff really works.

Well, just for the hell of it I'm gonna take a little ego trip. This site is intended to be a tool to help me become a working writer and artist -- I mean, I'm working like a son of a bitch but I want to get paid. So I guess I mean a professional writer and artist.

So what kind of progress has occured since I started the blog?

I've made two professional fiction sales and I'll be appearing in a book alongside one of my current favorite writers.

I've placed a print in a fancy rich-person gallery show.

And that print is just part of a completed series. I've got the art printed and ready to roll for a whole solo show.

I've had a short story used as the subject of a report at the Columbia School of Writing.

I've had another of my favorite writers praise my art and design for Swill magazine, which has also been studied at the University of Columbia.

And he recommended it to the editor of one of the big Year's Best anthologies -- which means she's gonna be seeing some of my fiction at least once a year for a while.

This year I had fiction in two magazines and art in two magazines. Next year it looks like I'll have fiction in at least three, maybe four magazines, a story published in a book, and art in two magazines.

I've had editors asking me for fiction, rather than me asking editors for rejection slips.

I've finished a functional draft of the first volume of the novel. (And I've heard back from my first reader outside the writer's group and the word is that it needs to be tighter at the start and the end but otherwise it's a solid read.) I'm so ready to start rolling on the rest of it.

And then there are the tiny stories I've placed at Thaumatrope.

Not bad, oafboy. Not bad at all. Yeah, I'm feeling proud of myself. Right now I am not the guy who sucks. It feels pretty good.

And I've got to say that I'm really appreciating the long-distance oddly attenuated quasi-friendships I've developed over the intertubes. I wish all of you...

(Glendon Mellow, Traumador, Brian Switek, lunchboxxx, the guy [I assume] who hates theropods, the Brainiacs, especially Rory Harper and Morgan J. Locke, Zachary Miller, Rob [who isn't really an internet pal since I met him in real life and from time to time he shows up in my living room to be sniffed by the doggerals] and all kinds of folks who I'd remember if I wasn't drinking right now -- and a special salute to Megan. If you don't like the fact that I'm writing, blame Megan. She encouraged me with both words and $$$... never feed a stray cat. Unless you want them to take up residence in the neighborhood. And I know that tomorrow I'll look at this list and realize that the one dearest to my heart does not appear on it. Unless you count the missus -- I'm gonna post about her in the near future. Look, you've gotten some idea as to how weird and defective I am. She's the one who took me in, glob bless her.) 

...lived around here so we could get to know each other well enough to get on each other's nerves, or at least have a beverage or two and a few laughs. If you want the laughs, I'll take the beverage and you can laugh at me.

Next time around I promise you a more interesting post. I think it's time to get back to working on my Anomalocaris piece... which is going to be a lot more work that I thought -- but the results should be interesting.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Crit List 1: The Borribles (expanded as of 12/16/08)

These covers were painted by Don Maitz. If there's any objection to my posting them by anyone associated with the books, I'm happy to take them down.

When I started this site I intended to do a fair amount of reviews and criticism. When I did my piece on Jurassic Fight Club I wound up backing away from that. First off, I found that I was doing the standard web snark attack -- and I found that I didn't like being that kind of person. When I realized that my snotty remarks were being read by creators who had worked hard and honestly it made me feel like a shit.

And the fact that it garnered me more hits than anything else I'd done took me aback. First, I want people to come to this site to see my work, not to read amusing slams on someone else. Second, I'm kinda self destructive and when I saw that I was achieving some kind of success I scuttled away from it as fast as I could.

See, this is a site about being a creator and about trying to make the move to being a pro. So any reviews or critical pieces need to be done from that perspective.

So I'm going to throw myself back into the fray and talk about a series of fantasy novels that have been a source of pleasure to me for decades. They've also given me a lot of help on my novel. Let me tell you about it.

When I was a kid there was one fantasy series that my family was familiar with -- The Lord of the Rings. It was my grandmother's favorite. She was one of the few who read it when it was first released and it was her favorite book. The Hobbit was the first book I had read to me as a child.

But as important as J.R.R. Tolkien was to me, he never really spoke to my life. That was part of the pleasure -- he took me entirely out of my world. But even as a child I was disgusted by the nationalism and classism inherent in his work. (How can anyone not cringe at the relationship between Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins?) That's not to say that he was a bad person -- but his world view was not one that I could accept without criticism.

When I was in high school, I found a fantasy book that took place in a world that was very, very close to the one that I lived in. That was Michael de Larrabeiti's The Borribles. This was a fantasy contemporaneous with and parallel to punk rock. It had heart and it had guts and it spoke to me in a way that no classic fantasy novel ever had. It was bitterly satirical, strewn with trash and covered in graffiti. This was a world where I belonged, where my friends belonged. It was fantasy in the gutter, in the alley, in the dumpster. It was grim and ugly and violent -- but it was redeemed by humanity and love. This was a world I could live in.

The basic idea behind the series is that children who for one reason or another live on their own and take care of themselves turn into creatures called Borribles. Borribles don't age, they don't grow. They can be recognized by their pointed ears, which they usually cover up with a watch cap or long hair. While they sometimes mingle with normal children they've established their own society, a varied collection of tribes usually organized along racial or cultural lines, named for the territories they inhabit.

Their enemies are the forces of conformity and heirarchy. Specifically the police (having grown up in a predominantly black community where the police force contained a racist gang who called themselves the Cowboys, I could relate to this) and the non-human Rumbles. If you have any familiarity with the Wombles of Wimbledon you won't have any trouble recognizing the Rumbles...

Here's a dirty little secret. Writing -- or, rather, editing -- fiction has ruined my appetite for reading. I read everything with an eye toward how it could be improved. Commas, dialogue attribution, point of view -- I can't let go of the technical side of writing.

But a few months back when I was in the thick of writing my novel I reread the Borrible books and found that they sucked me right in and still moved me. I was conscious of the crudity of the prose -- I wished I could take a red pen to them. The point of view is an omniscient one broken up by passages told from the perspectives of various individual characters and the shifts in POV frequently seem capricious. There are any number of moments where emotions that are made clear by the speech and actions of the characters are explicitly described by de Larrabeiti.

But as I read the books I dropped my mental red pencil as the simple power of direct storytelling over-rid my critical stance and swept me away.

A big part of this has to do with the intensely imagined quality of the work. The characters and settings are tangible, vivid, odiferous -- the continual appeal to all of the senses immerses you in de Larrabeiti's world.

His sense of action is very instructive to anyone who anyone who writes adventure fiction. His fight scenes are absolute classics -- if he hadn't been in a few fights himself I would be greatly surprised. At the end of volume two there's a scene I've jokingly described to friends as the greatest shovel fight in world literature. It's actually in strong competition for best fight scene, period, right up there with the fight between Flay and Swelter in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.

Spoiler Alert! For those who are interested, James Benstead of Tallis House publishing very graciously sent me this manuscript page from the third draft of the above-mentioned shovel fight from The Borribles Go For Broke. Caution -- contains climax!

But most importantly, the characters were all acting from strong, believable motivations. With a few plot-enhancing exceptions you know exactly what all the characters are doing and you know exactly why.

And that helped my novel. Here's how.

In the Borribles the motivations for the various characters are so clean-cut as to be diagrammatical. The bad guys want to either take advantage of the lead characters or they want to crush any sign of social deviation. The values that the good guys (and these books) hold dear are simple ones: Make a name for yourself. Live free. Don't let anyone get away with fucking with you. And above all else take care of the ones you love. Any death, any suffering is preferable to failing to live up to that creed.

If you've got a problem with those values, I have a problem with you. Those who think these books inappropriate for children must imagine that being a young person guarantees a life without hard decisions, without threats. This simply isn't true. I'd rather the kids I love be ready to face the world with open eyes, strong hearts, and a willingness to either stand tough or make sacrifices when the situation demands it.

When you put those motives together in opposition you inevitably get a story that's clean, involving, and moving. It's mathematical, mechanical -- and yet organic.

So after re-reading these books I went back and asked myself what my characters wanted, what their values were -- and how those values would bring them into conflict with one another. It brought my book to life.

The Borribles trilogy is available in both individual volumes and a single-volume compilation from Tor Books.

Michael de Larrabeiti died last April. I wish I'd had the chance to meet him and say: Thank you, Mr. de Larrabeiti. Don't get caught.

(Click here for a look at Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite, a very different and more mature work by de Larrabeiti.)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

I Sold To Thaumatrope -- The World's Shortest Fiction!

Here's an old one, dating back to my days of aspiring to comic book work. Maybe someday...

Well, there's a new market in town --

Thaumatrope Magazine.

I found out about them at John Scalzi's site last night. They specialize in fiction of one-hundred and forty characters or less. That's right -- characters.

The thing is, is that I've had a one-liner based on H.G. Wells's The Time Machine lurking in the back of my mind for a couple of months now. This meant that I was obligated to go and submit to them. A few minutes later another one appeared, and then another.

All three were accepted. They'll be appearing on December 20, 22, and 26.

But I've had to sign up for Twitter to do this. And I have no idea what the hell Twitter is and after looking at their site I'm not sure I'm capable of understanding Twitter.

And now I have to sign up for PayPal! Jesus, this is terrifying.