22 May, 2013

Altair IV: Honoring SF Antecedents in Contemporary Stories

It was December 2012 and I was on the road with my brother, on one of his work contracts.  As a writer and a non-driver, I packed accordingly; I had my laptop and a spiralbound notebook, a few good pens, my earbuds, you get the picture.  What I didn't do was pack my mp3 player because we would be driving most of the journey and I imagined that my brother's music would be tolerable enough to work by.  Some of it was.  Some of it was fantastic.  Some of it was pure tripe dressed up to look like cotton candy.  I knew we'd get on each others' nerves and planned accordingly for that, too.

I couldn't imagine that the most important thing he would do might occur on our very first day, driving into Tennessee.  At some point, when his eyes should've been on the road, he glanced over at my notebook, in which I was scribbling away the opening scene for a new section in my ongoing science fiction.  He spotted the words at the top of the page, written a bit larger than the rest.

Altair IV, it said.  And my brother's response to this was a snide: "You know Stephen King used that in 'The Tommyknockers'? Do you think it's okay for you to take it?"  He was accusing me of theft and plagiarism, as if I have ever lacked the imagination to produce my own work.  It was rich sarcasm coming from a man who lacks any creative spark at all and who likes his fandoms and comics but who has never been interested in anything more than just the surface.  

Because, at that moment, he was my temporary employer and I was being paid to be civil to him, I kept my mouth shut.  But, it has bothered me ever since.  He assumed I was stealing an idea, copying someone else's work.  Since he's never read a single thing I've ever written and obviously didn't know the real source of Altair IV, he couldn't know that his comment inflamed me.  He is unaware of the symmetry behind the choice of that particular name for that particular story's physical setting.  He's read Mister King's book but has never seen the movie which Mister King was referencing...the same late 1950s movie where I, too, discovered Altair IV.  

I chose that planet's name, used by others, as the setting for a series of very important scenes in a story I've been doing for a year now.  I even went with making Altair IV fit a few descriptions from those other sources.  But this isn't plagiarism .  This is me, doing what all of us do.  Point a finger to our antecedents, those stories which touched us and formed our thoughts as writers and creators.  It's my way of honoring The Forbidden Planet AND Mister King's long-published tale.  

When I wrote that planet's name down, I was just putting a label on the world I was designing in my head.  It's like naming all your characters Joan, John, Jones, Smith, and Bob in the earliest notes you make for a story.  I don't do that for characters, but I know writers who do.  I'm more likely to do it with a generalized location (e.g. Chinese Village, very rural, mid-18th century) and then narrow it down geographically and culturally as I figure out what I'm doing with the story's plot; character names come with the location's base identity, for what would've been common/uncommon, etc.  But, in the months since that sneering attempt to shame me, I've decided I rather like Altair IV.  

Oh, I wouldn't have a summer home there, but I think I made Altair IV very much THE Location in the plotting stage when, as my brother showed his ignorance, I felt that rush of annoyed disdain which I usually only see happening between Old-Who and Nu-Who fans.  And now I realize that I felt the same sort of irritation. 

We must all do it, with one thing or another.  In fandoms and genres that span decades, the irritation stems from a defense of sources and origins, a desire to see the history honored for what it has meant to the present.  The ways in which one story links to another, fifty-odd years apart from each other.  

I'm keeping Altair IV.  Just like Mister King did.  And probably for similar reasons.  I'm honoring the way The Forbidden Planet influenced my mind, as a child, when I was first discovering science fiction.  I'm acting on the desire for continuity while thumbing my nose at a dilettante who probably thinks Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote just Tarzan stories, if he can even identify the author at all.  And I've never been happier as a writer than I was when I knew Altair IV was an important choice and one that only I could make.

That was when I knew I was tired of hiding my stories from the world, writing only for myself.  


11 May, 2013

Reader Input As Creative Process

Last night, I invited a group of strangers to become part of a creative process with me.

I've started a rather ambitious project.  I'm sitting on 2/3rds of a story that encompasses a lot of books; it would have to be at least four to tell the arc.  I've written a lot of material for it, over the last year.  I'm down to perhaps the most intensive part and I haven't exactly stalled...

It's more like I've come to a point where I look at the material I've written and asked myself: is this coherent at all?  Where the hell am I going with it?

And I decided to allow a group of strangers in a reader's group to give me input.  I'm private-blogging the story work as I go along: character development, plot development, flow and tone, themes, etc.  I put my notes and thoughts out there and ask for this small group's opinions.  

They have all seen bits of this writing in the course of its initial creation.  Now, they will see how I design scenes and chapters, threads of the plot, all the nitty-gritty stuff that makes us pull our hair out, as writers.  They have the ability to give me feedback and I intend to take their opinions seriously, because I've picked a group of intelligent (I hope), decently well-read individuals who are all strangers to one another and to me.  It's my work and I get final say on this, naturally, but I've offered them the chance to create a background character and/or have their own name somewhere within the story.

Does this sound sane?  It's an experiment.  I want to see what happens.  But, if it works out...it could be rather innovative, allowing readers to influence some small part of our processes.  Writing is a solitary gig but if we didn't want to be read, we'd never show our stuff.  Backwards about my words, I am only recently finding my way into doing just that...allowing anyone to see my stories.  

If nothing else, it'll help me get past the social anxiety which has hindered me for so long.


07 May, 2013

audio book review: In the Shadows by Joseph Lidster

So I write this review for an audio book that has played an influence in my own writings; it feels like a good thing.  I suppose it is.  It's my first.

It's featured on the blogzine Project: Torchwood's May issue.


But, I'll post here for you, as well, if you're...you know...interested in reading it.


Torchwood: In the Shadows
by Joseph Lidster
Produced by Heavy Entertainment
BBC Audio release 7 May 2009
read by Eve Myles

'Ring-a-ring-a-roses, a pocket full of posies.  A-tishoo!  A- tishoo!  We all fall down.'

Set between the second series' episodes of 'Meat' and 'Reset', the audio book of 'In the Shadows' sees the Cardiff Hub team once more facing the afterlife question.  Is there nothing beyond death but a black and lonely void or is there something moving in the dark?  Either of these might be preferable to what waits in the shadows.

Narrated by Eve Myles, best known to fans as Gwen Cooper, this audio production is, at two and a half hours long, fast-paced action from the start while still giving small, intimate glimpses into the minds and hearts of its characters.  We are both reassured of what we know about them and then given new perspectives that add to the larger arc of Torchwood's second series.  Myles has a beautiful voice and she gives each character their natural intonations to the best of her vocal abilities.  The incidental music used reflects the intensity and urgency of the mission, while the use of one character to tell the story through the lens of an open letter to her dead team mates gives 'In the Shadows' a reflective tone which elicits both sorrow for the loss and hope for the future.

We are given a glimpse into the Cooper-Williams pre-marriage dynamic from the beginning of the story, as they are shopping for new settee cushions when a call from PC Andy Davidson interrupts their moment of domesticity.  He's got a body, a suspect, and an impossible murder.  It's all a bit Torchwood.

The body is really a skeleton and it was found on Queen Street, Cardiff's main pedestrian shopping area.  This unusual find appears to be that of a seventy-year old man who, according to his dental records, is actually Stephen Ballard, a young professional who went missing two days previously.  The suspect in custody was the last person to see him alive.  Mousy beta-man Darren Sowersby has no memory for what happened but knows that he last saw his friend in the taxi they were sharing on the way home from an evening of post-work drinking. 

Torchwood gets involved. 

When a second body, that of a young woman named Jade Russell, turns up on a Queen Street club's dance floor, the same circumstances are present.  Alive, she was in her twenties but at death she's eighty-something and her body is in a state of decay which suggests she's been dead for a while. 

What's happening here?  What does it have to do with huon particles?  Is there a serial killer on the loose in Cardiff, destroying people with something otherworldly and malignant?  Where did this form of death come from?  Is it Torchwood-created and now in the hands of a mentally-ill human with a desire to rid the world of its sin?  Here we have no rampaging aliens, no Weevils to track and trap; the danger comes from within the dark corners of the human psyche, a place we should all fear.  Who knows what lives in the heart of the person sitting beside us on the bus or the train?  Are we being judged by those around us, stranger and friend alike?  What happens when we're found lacking? 

Just when you think the team has caught up with the unlikely villain, whose invisible presence in life gives him the perfect opportunity to punish those whom he sees as sinners, things go pear-shaped.  Jack is sent to hell.

'Silence.  Darkness.  Alone in a world of shadows, Jack Harkness had no idea where he was.'

The team works to find and retrieve Jack, well aware that hell for someone who can't die is perhaps the most monstrous fate of all.  Jack's longevity gives them time to find a solution, but if they fail to do so, Jack's stay in hell will be eternal and he has so many regrets to re-suffer through.  While Owen and Tosh handle the technical aspect of huon particles and the weapon of choice, Gwen and Ianto pry answers out of their perp, an enigmatic psychopath who believes he's doing God's work by releasing the angels to punish those mundane and unlucky sinners who cross his path.

As seen in second series' episodes, Jack and Ianto's romantic relationship at this point is developing; there is an acknowledgment of bondage play with handcuffs and safety words but it's a tease, leaving you to wonder which of them was holding the keys.  They are physical with one another and the L word is tossed out.  Jack is his flirty and bigger-than-life self, while Lidster's Ianto is sweet, funny, and a bit innocent but deeply intuitive into the workings of the human heart; his darker side, revealed on occasion to great effect, casts him in chiaroscuro which both startles and excites. 

For the sake of brevity, Owen and Tosh are not fully involved here, but not every story can showcase every character.  Even so, their place in the mission is important; each plays a role in both dimensions, as team members who are working to solve the problem and as thorns for Jack's experience in the shadow world of hell, where he is urged to think that he's gotten it all wrong about everything.

Captain John Hart makes a momentary and appropriately slimy appearance to show us how Jack fears the intrusion of his less-than-noble past.  Hart's tiny place in the story comes laced with a mental image of Ianto Jones which is haunting far longer than the fifty seconds it takes within a track full of glimpses into what life might be like for the team if Jack was well and truly dead.  There are also a few cameo appearances for characters from the background of both Torchwood and its parent television show, 'Doctor Who', such as Trinity Wells from AMNN.

Jack's realization that things are not as they seem comes after the listener has started to see that our hero is not behaving like our hero; that, in fact, he's crossed a line into darkness.  Hell, for Jack Harkness, only truly begins when he has lost everything and everyone he cares about and he knows there won't be an end to his lonely penance.

This is a story that, once you have heard it, may keep you awake at night with questions that are raised by its premise and its execution.  Is hell a real place and, if so, is it another dimension where your venial, work-day sins and miseries are exploited and used against your heart?  Even in the end, Gwen Cooper doesn't know and neither do we and maybe it's better that way, for hell is personal and subject to individualization.

When we think about what hell is, we give it many definitions.  Hell is unique for each of us, no matter what we've been taught in faith or school or by our families, and we experience it in small doses every day.  Stephen Ballard's hell is the experience of being totally alone in a silent world while Jade Russell's is a reversal of all the hateful gossip which she indulges in.  Jack's is the unending nightmare of being completely on his own in the Hub, having destroyed and forgotten everyone that he cares for.

We all have little darkly bitter and hateful thoughts about the people around us, the tiny irritations sparked by perceived slights enacted by those who are seemingly unaware of how they get under our skin.  We resent their good luck and their happy endings, as Tosh resents Gwen's and as Owen resents Jack's.

With grin-worthy cultural references like 'murgatroyd', free DVDs that come with the papers, the Rob Dougan song 'Furious Angels', the movie 'Silence of the Lambs', and other titbits, the story is firmly grounded in what we love about Torchwood.  It's 21st century (where everything changes), its immediacy is poignant, and we can identify with the beta personality who feels like they are forever second fiddle, the eternal wingman.  Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.  But, as Ianto Jones and Toshiko Sato prove, sometimes it's the little people who save the day.

Through the eyes of our beta-man Darren Sowersby, the listener is left to wonder if it is technology or the human heart's ability to forgive which saves Jack from what he fears the most.

Joseph Lidster is also the writer of the second series episode 'A Day in the Death', a fan favorite for its glimpse into hope, despair, and freedom of choice from the perspective of a dead man.  To date, he has contributed several pieces to the Torchwood paradigm as well as to other television shows such as 'Wizards vs Aliens', and 'The Sarah Jane Adventures'.  Other audio-based works include scripts and stories for Big Finish Productions' lines such as 'Doctor Who', 'UNIT', and 'Dark Shadows', to name but a few.  Fans of his 'Torchwood' stories should definitely check out other projects and offerings from this author.

02 May, 2013

28 months post-loss of a writer's dross

In the first week of January, 2011, I lost 3/4s of my personal belongings in a tragedy which I don't want to go into.  I just won't.  Among those things I lost which could not be replaced were several file boxes full of stories, poetry, and writer's dross (research?).  Add to this my laptop, a 250GB external harddrive, and a 2GB thumbdrive.  I quite literally lost 9/10s of my writings in one horrid and irreversible fall.

I also lost a library.  A library containing thousands of books.

It took a month for me to completely accept that there was nothing I could do to rectify this situation.  I could not have my work back.  There was no devil to cut a deal with, although I would have happily given half my family for the bargain.  I fell into a depression.  A very bad one.  I couldn't write, I couldn't even think.  Most days, I couldn't even get out of the bed.  It lasted more than a year.

In the past, as I've described this loss to others, I've said that it was like losing a child to death.  But, it's more than that, isn't it?  I lost approximately a decade's worth of digitally-saved writings....but, I also lost pieces that were twenty-five years old, on paper.  A story that dates back twenty-five years might not seem like it could be that important, but...when it's the only identifiable (and found) copy of your first published work?  Don't we want to hold on to these things?  I fought a war in two different households just to keep my autonomy as a writer, refusing to allow first my father and later a husband to deprive me of my only real joy in life.  To lose it all to something outside of my control was a real eye-opener.  But, at first...I didn't see it that way.  I thought my world had come to an end.

You're born a storyteller or you're not.  I'm one.   My life has been spent this way.  I write to quell the voices in my head, to make my heart beat and my lungs breathe.  It is what I do.  My children have grown up with this as their reality...meals and baths were often pushed back another hour while I work out a scene or two.  At night, they went to sleep to the sound of my keyboard and, as crawling babies, often took naps under my desk within a nest of toys.  Their father knew my moods and knew what it meant for whatever story I was writing...he always knew when I was finished with something that I thought was clever.  

As the eldest child of a writer, I did recognize that my kids were, in a way, raising themselves.

We did a good job of it, raising each other.  I've got two of the best teenaged daughters you can imagine.  They're really nothing like their peers.  I'm quite proud of them.  They're both named after literary characters and have themselves become artists, each with their own interesting talents and skills.

I could replace the computer, but I couldn't replace the documents and files.

Being told by my family and friends that I would heal from the loss of my life's work was like being told 'It's okay that you just lost two limbs and an eye because you'll just grow more'.  What?   It was like being told 'It's okay that all your kids died in a terrible fire, because you can always have another'.  The hell you say.

I lost friends over this.  Not that I particularly cared.  

You don't, when you're that depressed.


01 May, 2013

Me and ol' Last of the Mohicans

Sometimes, I write to the noise of silence.  But not often.

I can spend three hours building a playlist for what, in the end, comes out as six or seven pages of prose.  It's a form of procrastination, I think, but it also serves a purpose.  If I've reached a point where it takes more than five minutes to find the right music, then I'm conflicted about what I'm writing.  

I waste that time picking and sampling what I think the scene (or whatever) needs as an internal soundtrack, but what I'm also doing, sometimes, is deciding the angle of my approach.  I imagine it being like a director in the set-up of a shot, but my camera is in how I use words made of light and shadows.  I want to see beyond the environment and the action and into the heart of something which becomes visceral in its impact.

That's what I strive for, anyway.

Music is key.

I've discovered that I prefer movie (and some TV) soundtracks these days.  On occasion, I can listen to one track on repeat for hours as I mentally live through the experiences I've chosen to write.  The right piece of music can make a scene into that fabled lightening in a bottle while the wrong rhythms and tones can bog things down to a point where the writing of it is an interminable chore and the results are lackluster at best.

It's hard to explain to the family.  They think I'm mad and I think they're boring.  As long as I'm not rattling any windows with a six-hour repeating loop of 'Promentory' by Trevor Jones, from The Last of the Mohicans soundtrack, what do they care?  

Well...quite a bit, apparently.  

I think it's likely a result of how certain kinds of music can send me into a very deep hyper-focus.  I can lose myself in my head, where I live in another universe, and time has no meaning; it might take minutes to write the sentences that describe a full lifetime, but I might also spend six hours carving a perfect hour's events.  I'll be gone for twelve hours and come back only reluctantly when I'm being pushed to do other things which need attention.

Wow.  I just managed to make my brain sound like a cool place to visit.  Kind of.

I'm not writing anything important these days, just a bit of this and that, but there's a decent playlist involved.

I love hearing about other writers' music choices.  These days, I've got several playlists I use for the stories I've been writing.  Not that I intend to ever show anyone; social anxiety disorder keeps me pinned, the backwards and shy kid in the corner.  But, that's what this blog is about, I suppose.  Teaching me to talk with others like myself so that I might reach out and find my way in the dark.  Not that writers are a helpful lot, by nature; I think we must all live deeply inside our own heads.  

Oh, that could've been a rant.  Back on topic in this short entry.

Music touches us, as humans, because it affects several places in the brain all at once.  I think that writers who utilize music as their internal focus must be using the sounds as a form of recall for emotional experience and actions which we see in our minds.  We use the music for much the same reasons for which it was written.

As I write this, I'm checking out a new soundtrack.  It's the season four of Battlestar Galactica.  I feel shame to admit...I've never watched the show.  I know, I know....I'm woefully lacking in science fiction tv creds.  I need to devote a long block of time to tv and movies and books.  But I am loving the hell out of this music.  I'm only a few tracks in and I've got a head full of fire for a scene that's trying to shove its way out of my skull like Athena from...well, it's an obvious cliche, isn't it?  

I've gotten excited over a tv soundtrack...again.  

cadged from www.paintingsilove.com

23 April, 2013

Link Between Primate Mating and Human Fashion

(originally posted on a failed blogging attempt at vevegriot.wordpress on April 3, 2010 at 8:50 pm)

I wonder.

Bonobos and chimps do some amazingly human-like things. They have their own behaviors, of course, but recently I’ve been thinking about the sex life of our primate cousins and how it seems to mirror a few trends in contemporary human society (in the west). Thank goodness for that physical anthropology course at college, right? Go, me!

So. I used my textbooks and the infamous wikipedia. I figured these are two fairly common sources for common info on how female bonobos and chimps handle sexual advertising—that part of a sex life which draws the male in for mating. How do they tell each other about lust and sexual availability?

Here’s what I learned about it.

Bonobo females develop a massive swelling of their genitalia when they are in estrus (in heat, laymen). This pink thing swollen at their backside can be seen from long distances by other bonobos. (Jane Goodall, in describing female chimp swellings described them as pink lady) The pheromone level doesn’t seem to be lacking, either. This combo lets the males know that a female is available for mating. However, it’s the female bonobo who holds sexual power. Food and sex are exchanged in all manner of combinations (dinner and a one-night stand?) but it’s the pink swelling that I find most fascinating. It’s the center of life in bonobo groups, which consists of mothers and their offspring. Fathers, uncles, etc, are peripheral to the single-mother group. All males treat offspring with great tolerance—the little rugrat could be theirs, after all, and if not, then they are likely to be closely related through the maternal bloodline.

Now…here’s where I start laughing and can’t stop. 

There is a current fashion among western females to wear snug pants with the word PINK stitched across the seat, drawing instant attention to the spread of their hips.

Why do I suddenly think of ‘Grease’ and Stockard Channing?

photo cadged from: http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/

19 April, 2013

Bitch-Slapping Social Anxiety

There is something frightening in waking up to find that your work has been put out there for the public eye while you slept.  I'm still not sure how I feel about all of it, really, but that could be just the waking-up part.  I never consider waking up as something I want to engage in.

What I find frightening is how much I actually care about this.  I've spent better than two decades trying to convince myself that it didn't matter whether others read my work.  The things I've done that were self-published, I always blow them off when my friends or family go: 'Hey, I have a copy of that now.'  And then I say, in response: 'Oh, don't worry about reading that.  I could care less one way or another.'

But, I do care.  And I look back at those conversations (from years ago) and I realize something...I knew those stories weren't worth reading.  That's why I didn't want anyone to read them.  Oh, and well...there was the smutty stuff, too.  Who wants their mother to read something pornographic that they've written?  You?  Well, brave soul...have at it, then.  I couldn't.  

So, I told friends and family alike: 'Eh, don't worry about reading that'.  

But, it wasn't just the smut that embarrassed me.  

I think we must all know---in our guts---whether something's worth reading, when we've written it.  I knew when I looked at my mother, after the vignette was accepted to the blog, and said: 'I'll email it to you, if you like.'

I have not handed my mother a single piece of my writing since I was ten years old.  I'm in my mid-late thirties now.  I can still remember what she said, in review of my words back then.  She said it was okay. And I could tell that she'd glanced at it but nothing more.  

Whose mom has time to sit down and read every last word of a 200-page manuscript that their odd child has pounded out on an electric Smith-Corona while sitting cross-legged in bed like Daisy from 'Spaced'?  I was ten years old and that was me, writing a 'Star Trek' novel.  

Original series, of course.

It was all very McCoy-oriented.

My mom didn't have time for all that.  She glanced at the work I'd slaved over for a year and said it was okay, but I could tell that she didn't have time or patience for what I'd poured myself into.  And until the other day, she never showed the slightest bit of interest in what I was doing as a writer.  Even though I've got various things published in various spots under other names, she's never asked to read a single piece.  And I haven't offered.

I offered this one to her.  Admittedly, it's less than 500 words and it's a public blog's once-a-year contest and I know nothing about the credentials of the editors, but hey---that's not what counts.  What counts here is that I got brave enough to send someone three vignettes under my own name.  Which is something I've never managed before.  

The one that the blog editors picked for publication is a very small scene in a much bigger story, but I thought it self-contained enough to stand as an emotional photograph of these two men---best friends with a hint of something more which hasn't happened yet.  I'm proud of the story it comes from, even if I might never show that pride.

I follow several writers on twitter.  They're all writers whom I've read, whom I actually admire as writers.  They are novelists, screenwriters, and I think they all started with writing fan fiction...which gives me a thrill deep in the belly.  Don't we all start by writing those stories we wish we could see on screen?  I'm not a fan, as others might view fans.  I admire these people for their craft and I don't get overly friendly.  I'm more interested in what they have to say in their blogs, in the things they post about the writing process and its end result...the published works.  

I'm self-educated as a writer through almost thirty years of reading excellent books and writing crap of my own.  I was told from an early age, as I proved myself to be a storyteller, that I needed other things to fall back on.  Skills that earned a living.  So, I didn't take my writing skills seriously and they remain self-trained talents.  Not that I've done much else, when it comes to pay-worthy skills.  

So, I read the blogs and shared articles of published writers whom I admire, to gain their perspectives.  To help me avoid pitfalls, to show me some tricks of the trade.  In the hope that, someday, I might write something else that I want my mother (and the world) to read.

So...social anxiety?  That's the thing which has kept me from putting anything real out there for the world to read; my social anxiety comes as a result of life with untreated ADHD.  When you know you're an embarrassing fuck-up and have some intuition about how you're perceived, you tend to be really shy and backwards about dealing with people.  Which is the opposite of what a writer needs to be, these days.  We pimp ourselves or we die in obscurity, unread and unrealized.  So...what did I do to combat my social anxiety this week?

I submitted three vignettes to a stranger under my own name, knowing I was about to be judged...even if under just small terms.  One piece was accepted (they only take one) and I've posted the URL for everyone to see on twitter and on facebook.  I've put myself out there where my friends and family can see me.  I've put myself out there where my heroes can see me.  I've basically stripped naked and danced on a table in the pub.  

I haven't been this elated and scared since I gave birth.