Friday, October 26, 2012

Commercial Fiction As Applied Neuroplasticity

My father is one of the founding members of the letter carriers union, which means he's divided his professional life between politics and the streets of Richmond, California. So I don't get to shock him that often.

When I explained the approach I was taking with the Henry stories I'm doing for the Flash Fiction Fest? He was appalled.

"You're a reptile," he said. "And you're growing a lure on the end of your tongue."

One does what one must.

Let's make one thing clear. The Henry stories are not literature. They are commercial fiction. They are intended to provide readable entertainment for an intelligent audience. While I try to write well, clarity is more important than beauty or originality of phrasing. There is use of formula. Much of the appeal lies in scientific and speculative novelties that do represent an essentially juvenile state of mind.

I am perfectly comfortable with that. I am playing a different game.

As long-time readers know, I had a fairly spectacular stress-related collapse a couple of years back. Since then, I've been consciously engaged in a process of growth, and much of it has been rooted in the growing availability of information on the physical nature of the mind.

The art I'm concerned with gains its power by stimulating neurological events. The more complicated the circuit formed, the more engaging and satisfying the artistic experience.

Art rewards the brain.

But not all rewards are the same.

I have become aware that much of the fiction I've read has used stress as a reward -- either by allowing the reader to control a stress-inducing experience, or to feel the reward of triumph or superiority.

I wanted to write something that delivered a different set of neurological rewards.

The Henry stories are intended to reward the reader with the experiences of bonding, cooperation, problem-solving, and intellectual curiosity. They are intended to inculcate a mental state of relaxed alertness combined with a mildly expanded sense of benevolence.

They are intended to be healthy. If I am writing in order to provide a public service, I want to provide a goddamned service.

Now, the formula for the stories is that of solving a problem through some speculative twist involving scientific trivia.

Which means the story of the Henry stories actually is a Henry story.

So, yeah. I am perfectly happy to call them science fiction.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Henry Lives

So there's this guy, Neil Vogler. He commented on this blog some years ago, and I responded. And thusly was formed one of those vague, weird, quasi-social interactions that make the internet seem so very much like a branch of the netherworld.

And Neil, may the good lord love him, had an idea.

He thought it would be cute to respond to National Novel Writing Month (interesting how that was the subject of my last post, mmm?) by releasing a series...

No.  A slew, a flood, a deluge of short-short fiction.

I, myself, am not prone to behavior that might produce positive results,  so I backed away as soon as he presented the idea to me.

I haven't introduced you to Neil yet. From the intercontinental distance, Neil, here are the folks, thus far. Folks, Neil.

So Neil decided that it would be cute to present a series of short-short stories during NaNoMoNaBliBooGoo or whatever it is. And Neil is...

I hate to say it, but this was a terrier versus labrador situation. Terrier always wins. Neil bugged me, and bugged me, and bugged me. I said, "Oh, no no no, my sweet. No, no, no, my child."

Did I say 'terrier?'

So I broke down and said, okay. Ten stories. Flash fiction, ten stories during NaNoMaHoGaLuLieLo or whatever.

(Do I seem a little toasted? By the deadlines, I've been roasted.)

And then the son-of-a-bitch comes in and tells me he's found a publisher.

So now I have a deadline, and as is my wont, I whipped out three stories that should have proven discouraging.

I must have blown it, because December House decided to pick us up.

And all of a sudden, I was writing twenty -- no, twenty-one -- no, twenty-three stories for an anthology series featuring not only the dearly beloved Neil but also P.T. Dilloway, who bears very little responsibility for my actions.

I came into this tentatively, and now I'm fully engaged. If you read what Neil says, he makes a point of stating that this isn't throwaway material, that we're all really doing what we can.

He's right.

Look, I'm a devotee of book culture. I am trying to get into the book world. I want to bring profits to the people who maintain our culture, such as it is.

But when people express a strong interest in my work, and extend themselves to support it, well.


Check it out.

Henry is coming soon.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Hey, NaNoMo, Are You Sure You Know What You're Doing?

Please note: These are the grumpy words of a grumpy man.

(By 'grumpy' I mean 'operating a vocabulary while
suffering from a seasonal mood disorder.')

My ill-humor, pessimism, defensiveness, and elitist peevishness should not in any way reflect upon the good-will extended to National Novel Writing Month and its participants by the Flash Fiction Fest, its publisher, and the other contributors, who regard you all with great admiration and personal fondness which they would prefer you do not awkwardly mistake for sexual attraction.

National Novel Writing Month is part of a renaissance of folk art. I have to love that. Digital media has made traditionally expensive and arcane creative tasks accessible to anyone with a computer and some patience, and the internet has made it easy for people to share their efforts with one another.

Think of the world of culture as a pyramid. Right now, the base is getting broader. I think that's a good thing.

But my personal concern is with the top few feet of the pyramid. I'm not talking about fame, I'm talking about my kind of art. I'm talking about the use of extraordinary levels of craft to communicate a deeply felt and considered reaction to life in order to kindle strong and complex reactions in an audience.

That is my ambition.

If your ambition is to get a .doc file with fifty-thousand words in it by the end of November, you and I might not have a lot to talk about. And our interests are at odds.

Right now, there is an intentional corporate-driven agenda to devalue the written word. To turn the art of writing into a loss-leader used by businesses as a means of selling e-book readers. Prices for books are being set at bargain rates, and there is a class of reader being nurtured that buys for bulk rather than quality. And National Novel Writing Month...

"What are you reading?" I ask the missus.

She looks up from her iPad, and says, "This book, it's so stupid."

"How stupid is it?" I ask, and she reads me a hilariously sloppy casserole made out of half-baked cliches held together by cheese.

"Why are you reading that?" I ask.

"It only cost ninety-nine cents," she answers, and I hear the faint chime that accompanies the death of all I hold dear in culture.

These shitty novels were written during National Novel Writing Month. The base is getting broader.

And the peak is getting shorter. Literature is in decline. That's another mean-spirited essay, and I think I already wrote it.

Here's the thing. It is entirely possible to write a decent novel in a month.

But you have to know how to write in the first place. And writing a novel as though it were a marathon race is a terrible way to learn technical skills, and it will very likely cause you to develop bad, lazy habits out of desperate need.

If you want to have written a novel, don't let me get you down, go on and fart that son-of-a-bitch out and throw it up on Amazon for a buck along with all the other grunions. It's fun, you'll get something out of it, who's it going to hurt, never mind that you're breaking my fucking HEART with your COCKAMAMIE BULLSHIT. Anything you're going to do right, you're going to do right accidentally rather than developing any kind of solid skill-set --

Sorry, sorry. Give me a second here.

Anyway, if you just want to be able to say you did NaNoMo, go for it. But if you want to write well, sitting down and cranking out a mass of words with no prior planning is something you should do if you have trouble motivating yourself, or if you want to explore automatic writing. There can be a real magic that sets in after you've burned through all your cliches and assumptions and raw material starts pouring out.

Otherwise. If you want to learn to write well, with control, range, and power, start with short pieces.

The most difficult part of a novel is conceiving of it as a whole, and this is how most failed novels fail. But when you write in the short form, you can understand what you are doing as you work. The ability to master long form works is of necessity built up as any other strength.

Essays are the best starting point. The essence of clear writing is the ability to state your thoughts, and the first challenge a writer faces is that of understanding their own thoughts well enough to convey them. The essay is the essential form for this purpose, and is one of the most powerful mental exercises you can do. The ability to convey an opinion, describe a physical action, scientific principal, or state of mind is an ability that transfers directly to fiction.

Poetry and lyrics are both important for the development of style. Poetry requires a precise use of words beyond that demanded by prose. May I suggest that when one is capable of great feats, it is possible to perform lesser feats in a more impressive fashion than would otherwise be possible. (Humor is very closely related to poetry in its requirements for perfection in timing and word-choice, and both humorists and poets are subject to strange and unpleasant fixations on language. It's a professional hazard.)

Lyrics teach rhythm, allowing the writer to call on the power of everything from music to the beat of the heart. And unlike prose, lyrics and verse poetry are treated by the brain as music -- and if you write a line that sticks in people's heads, that they quote out loud days or even years after they've read it? You have written something the reader's brain instinctively regarded as music.

Short fiction is both easier and harder than the novel. For most writers, a period of apprenticeship in short fiction is necessary before enough skills have been gained to write a solid novel. There are exceptions, but until you've written a really successful piece of fiction -- by which I mean something that works, that lives on the page -- it strikes me as daffy to invest yourself in a novel. (Again, assuming that learning to write well is your central concern.)

You can hold a short story in your head. You can write flash fiction in hours, tweet fiction in minutes – and the sense of understanding the whole thing, of controlling your work, is something a novel will only give you after skull-bursting labor.

You can re-write a short story until it works without using up decades of your life, which is a real danger with an out-of-control novel. These days I can get a decent piece of fiction done on the first or second draft most of the time, but a lot of my early stories went through twelve or fifteen drafts. Aim for that kind of perfection with a novel, and watch the years roll by.

You have time to experiment. To try technical tricks that would be intolerable at length, to attempt to duplicate the effects of your favored writers without looking like a ripoff, to write a story that’s the exact opposite of what you usually write, to try your hand at erotica or mythopoics or action-adventure or avant-garde formalism – anything.

Short form writing is the gymnasium and laboratory of good writers. Hacking out a novel in a month is a vacation for hack wannabes -- or, rather, tourists in the land of art. Tourists who litter, and don't bother to learn anything about the locals.

You make up your own mind how you want to go.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Litcrawl and the Social Animal

Laszlo takes point through the redwoods. Not shown: used toilet paper, trails being destroyed by mountainbiking assholes who scream threats as they pedal away, and the hideous idiot stoner hut some knit-cap ninnies made out of sticks. A female mountain lion has been known to slope through this territory, though, so I can dream.

I can dream.

So, did I fail to pursue the honorable course?

Was the individual in question a nine-year-old kid, a very small adult dressed in a stained green T-shirt and sweatpants, or a hallucination?

Were they drunk, or developmentally disabled, or severely depressed? Or did they have that desperate expression because were they in trouble?

Did they touch my ass, and if so, were they after the ass, or were they after the wallet?

Why did...

Okay, I read at the San Francisco Litquake's Litcrawl last Saturday. And I've had a hard time figuring out how to write about it. The evening was a weird one for me. Many good parts, many confusing parts. And at least one part has had me troubled.


The piece I wrote for the event has proven to be both the most difficult and the most useful piece of writing I've ever done. It confronts my relationship with violence, beginning in childhood and continuing right up to about a month ago. There is little judgment in it, just a recitation of events.

It is on the heavy side. An abused child, I was abusive in my early teens. I do fall into the category of people with a capacity for real violence. But that capacity has allowed me to move confidently and non-violently through threatening situations.

And writing through it in a straightforward, undecorated fashion allowed me to come to terms with what I am. I am not a warrior because I do not wage war. I am not a fighter because I do not fight. But I have chosen to take a heroic stance in life, to place my body at the disposal of the general good and my sense of honor. And so far as anything can be trusted, I can trust in my judgment to do what's right and I can trust others not to fuck with me when I get a certain way.

That feels so much better than being a fucking Jack Abbott-style human time bomb, which was a concern for a while there.

So getting ready to perform this work in front of what I'd convinced myself would be a breakthrough audience -- I'd get seen! I'd be known! San Francisco! Agents! Editors! Bright lights! -- I got myself into a a fairly agitated state by the time the evening rolled around.

Thankfully, the missus had volunteered to get me to the show on time. I didn't have to worry about getting there when the show started. We'd leave Berkeley at six-thirty and get to the Mission in San Francisco by seven, no problem.

This is nuts. REALLY nuts. "Why can't I just walk through walls? They're just a bunch of molecules!" nuts. A nervous non-driver, late that afternoon I had a wave of panic, looked up Litcrawl, and found that they specifically stated that driving to Litcrawl was NOT A THING THAT CAN BE DONE.

The missus is no longer to be made responsible for my transportation. It is all on me now, even if it means I have to start the previous day and fucking walk. I am not going through this again.

If you don't know me, you've never seen me sweat. If you do know me, you have. I sweat like an athletic pig, streams of human gravy pour from me as though my pores were tiny taps. This is what happened when I realized I was going to be taking public transportation at the last possible minute. Any screw-up and I would go from professionally late, where I look like a jerk, to actually late, where I am a jerk.

I was lucky. After sprinting from the BART station, I showed up just as the reading started.

None of my folks were there -- but it turned out that it didn't really matter. Enough people knew me and were glad to see me that I felt part of the scene even though I was on my own. That was good. That was very good. I'd particularly like to thank Justine Clifford (I'm not sure what link Justine might appreciate), Paul Corman-Roberts, Michael Layne Heath, and new-met Pearce Hansen for making me feel welcome.

The venue was tiny, dimly lit, no mic, and crowded. I had to go outside during the other readings, which irked me, because everyone was knocking it out.

Joe Clifford fixed my little red wagon by making me go second. This is what happens to late people, and this is what they deserve.

Now, one of my minor fantasies has been getting a wireless mic so I can roam while I read. Get right down into the audience and really scare the hell out of them.

Well, because of the size of the venue, I was right in the middle of the audience. I had to control my motions and gestures to keep from actually coming into physical contact with people. I was dripping with sweat, still full of juice from the fast walk, and because my piece was a little long (I always keep the length that Joe approves, but this time he'd approved a long piece), I felt obliged to read a little more quickly than usual because of the time constraints. To compensate, I enunciated as clearly as possible, working hard on the short declarative sentences, and trying consciously to fill the space with my voice.

The sweat ran down onto the manuscript as I read. The people closest to me must have gotten a few drops. It was kind of rock-star-ish, and by the time I was done, I'd settled into my public persona.

The public persona is something I'm having a hard time getting used to. I have found that I do have a capacity to function in noisy, crowded, social environments as long as I have a strong sense of my own significance. (Not importance, just a positive sensation of actual existence.) But it feels very much like being a different person.

I took an acting class a few months back, and have been meaning to write about it. It was just four sessions, but it was fairly mind-bending for me. The type of acting taught in class was focused on social intuition and flexibility of response. These are two areas of massive deficit for me. So acting was a big, serious thing.

And now when I'm in social situations, I have a new level of comfort and grace. Which is good. But it comes at a cost. I normally think hard about everything I say and do, and the majority of my actions are reasoned responses. In order to cope with the overwhelming quantities of information presented to me in conventional social situations, I have to abandon any real depth of thought and concern for others and just go on instinct, just respond flexibly and intuitively to a situation that feels like swimming in rough surf.

Well, I like swimming in rough surf. It's fun. I'm finding great pleasure in the social world now that I feel truly part of mankind...

... but I an't the guy I think I am. The 'identity Sean' is a compulsive analyzer, someone who can't cope with a situation until it has been dissected and the dissection used as the basis for a series of instructive illustrations. 'Social Sean' is a very nice guy in a hearty, good-natured 'hail fellow, well-met' kind of way. But I don't know the son of a bitch well enough to trust him.

Here's an example.

After I read, I stepped into the bar so I could go around to the outside of the building and try and listen to the other readers. I stopped for a second to weigh my desire for a drink against the difficulty of getting one in a crowded bar.

That was when I felt a hand on my ass. I get one every year or two, and have gotten past being freaked out by the experience. I didn't like this one. It had a quality that combined exploration with deniability, it was a sneaky hand. So I turned to confront the owner; at the very least, I'd bad-vibe them.

The person behind me looked like a nine-year-old boy, with a deeply miserable and stupid expression on their face. Dirty, disheveled, and honestly? There was something unwholesome about the way they looked at me. They wanted something.

I looked for a parent and saw no-one.

And my flexible, intuitive reaction? "You're hallucinating, and if you interact with this kid you will be acting like a CRAZY PERSON right after discussing the close control you keep over your homicidal impulses. Bad impression, dude. A very bad impression to make."

So I blinked, nodded, and moved on.

And later that night, while walking and talking with Michael Layne Heath, I saw that person walking next to me, looking up at me with that pleading expression. And again, I refused to believe in them. Normal Sean would at least have said something, confirmed reality, tried to get an idea of what was going on.

But Social Sean just said, "I cannot even understand this, and I have shit to do." I smiled, nodded, made eye contact, and when there was no response other than the pleading gaze? I turned back to Michael.


There is a pretty good chance that the small person was a hallucination.

But I don't think they were. I think I was copping out because I couldn't get a grip on the situation.

On the other hand, the small person could have done something other than (possibly) groping my ass and staring at me with mute wishes.

If it was a kid who needed help, I failed.

If it was a hallucination, I played it off properly.

If it was a small adult, well. That's a little iffy. People who don't have conventional appearances have a hard time making casual social contacts, and if that was the case here? I was supporting the loathsome norm -- or maybe I was politely brushing off an unwanted and uninvited physical contact.

I've got no way of double-checking this, no way to find out what the story is. I just have to live with the mystery.

I wound up taking off early. Not because I felt uncomfortable, but because I felt comfortable and I was having a good time, and my behavior was not entirely under my conscious control. I wonder how much I can trust this Social Sean guy. He means well, but he's pretty shallow, and he might get me in trouble some day.