Being Visible

Agents of change make status quo folks rather squirmy. Folks who were previously absent or invisible either join up or speak up, and next thing you know, colored people want to drink out of lily-white fountains, and red people want their land back and treaties honored, and homosexuals want to get married, and women want to be treated as more than sex objects…. It’s hard. It’s very hard for those who’d been used to the Way Things Were. There the world was, ticking over nicely in their estimation, and suddenly a horde of uppity upstarts are there harshing their mellow.

Jackie Robinson, who did a hell of a lot more than play good baseball. He broke color barriers all over the place: in various sports, in television, and in business. Image courtesy Maurice Terrell, LOOK magazine, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jackie Robinson, who did a hell of a lot more than play good baseball. He broke color barriers all over the place: in various sports, in television, and in business. Image courtesy Maurice Terrell, LOOK magazine, via Wikimedia Commons.

And what they’d dearly love is for us to shut up and go away.

I do understand. I’ve been Status Quo, you see. I grew up in a conservative household, and the conservative sentiment is “America – love it or leave it!” and there were many times when I wished those noisy liberals would just shut up and move to Canada if they hated this country so much. Learning the liberals were right was a long, at times painful, process. And there were issues with white privilege, and cis privilege, and middle-class privilege, that had me howling “shut up and go away!” until the people who refused to shut up and go away got through the fingers I had stuffed deeply in my ears. Now I’m glad they didn’t do what I wanted.

And that’s not a patch on the discomfort caused by feminists, who had a job o’ work convincing me to reexamine certain of my assumptions and admit that yes, even in America, feminism is desperately needed.

Florence Bascom, the first woman to receive a PhD from Johns Hopkins University, where she had to sit behind a screen so as not to discomfit the delicate menfolks. She went on to become the first female geologist in the USGS and the first woman elected to the GSA. She mentored three other women who became part of the USGS. So it would seem, in some situations, that being visible behind a screen can get the change ball rolling. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Florence Bascom, the first woman to receive a PhD from Johns Hopkins University, where she had to sit behind a screen so as not to discomfit the delicate menfolks. She went on to become the first female geologist in the USGS and the first woman elected to the GSA. She mentored three other women who became part of the USGS. So it would seem, in some situations, that being visible behind a screen can get the change ball rolling. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Did you notice? None of those folks went quietly away.

They remained visible and vocal. Sometimes, they were out there very vocally explaining the injustices they’d suffered, demanding commitments be honored and rights be extended. Sometimes, they were giving me a glimpse into what it meant to live as a minority among the majority, or disadvantaged among the advantaged. Sometimes they were just there, being visible doing things “conventional wisdom” said they weren’t supposed to do, thus proving conventional wisdom full of shit.

So there it is, this thing you can do if you’re not a firebrand or an activist, if you’re not able to devote yourself to constant activity in campaigns for equality. Not all of us have to be leaders or marchers. Those activists need you, too, being visible. Being in a non-traditional career, or a non-traditional relationship, or a non-traditional body. Being an atheist, matter-of-factly. Adding some color to a sea of white. Because the more visible the formerly-invisible people become, the harder it is to ignore and dismiss and other them, and the more other formerly-invisible people are encouraged to become visible. And momentum is gained. You know how inertia and momentum work. You know it gets easier to keep the ball rolling in the direction you want it to once you’ve got it up to a good speed.

Mathieu Chantelois and Marcelo Gomez getting married in Toronto, July 2003. They were among the first to tie the knot when same-sex marriage became legal in Ontario. The rest of Canada followed suit within a couple of years. Someday, I will be trying to explain why couples like Chantelois and Gomez were pioneers simply for loving each other and insisting on getting married, and those kids won't understand, because the pioneers will have made it all perfectly normal, just as it should be. Image courtesy Mm.Toronto via Wikimedia Commons.

Mathieu Chantelois and Marcelo Gomez getting married in Toronto, July 2003. They were among the first to tie the knot when same-sex marriage became legal in Ontario. The rest of Canada followed suit within a couple of years. Someday, I will be trying to explain why couples like Chantelois and Gomez were pioneers simply for loving each other and insisting on getting married, and those kids won’t understand, because the pioneers will have made it all perfectly normal, just as it should be. Image courtesy Mm.Toronto via Wikimedia Commons.

How can you impart a little extra momentum, even if you’re not in a position to give it a good shove? Do the little things. Sign petitions. Phone, write or email politicians and organizations and companies to let them know what you’d like them to start, stop or keep doing. When you can, correct mistaken assumptions and let the people around you know when something they’re doing or saying is a problem. You don’t have to make a huge fuss, just let them know there’s an alternative to what they just did or said that won’t hurt you. Support the people around you who are doing that work. People sometimes won’t understand they’re doing or saying bothersome things until multiple people have advised them it’s a problem.

You can think of more, I’m sure. And it won’t seem like much. It won’t ever seem like enough. Friction will sometimes steal some of the momentum, and it’s discouraging and horrible when that happens. You’ll sometimes feel like giving up in despair, because how can you’re little bit change anything?

But the point is to keep being visible. As much as you can. Because it’s very, very hard to ignore the people in plain sight, even if all they’re doing is quietly going about living a life prejudice said shouldn’t be possible.

Do your thing, and you will help revolutionize the world.

Aya Kamikawa, the first transgender person in Japan to hold an elected office (and won re-election rather handily). The government told her she'd be considered male; she told them she'd work as a woman. Image courtesy Kenji-Baptiste OIKAWA via Wikimedia Commons.

Aya Kamikawa, the first transgender person in Japan to hold an elected office (and won re-election rather handily). The government told her she’d be considered a man; she told them she’d work as a woman. Image courtesy Kenji-Baptiste OIKAWA via Wikimedia Commons.

 

(None of this is new. We already know it. But it sometimes bears repeating.)

Dana’s Gift Emporium for the Terminally Late and Non-Shopaholic

Right. Crap. Christmas and/or other midwinter holiday requiring giftage. There’s very little time left to get that special someone a little something, isn’t there? Suppose I’d best boot the Dojo to another day and get on it, then.

If, like me, you’re teh suck at this whole shopping thing, hopefully the links contained herein will offer a bit o’ the old inspiration and assistance. Even if you do have to give someone a card saying, “I ordered your gift late, so you get to open this card first.”

What if you’re buying for someone you’re obligated to buy for but don’t really like? Oh, just wait. Got that covered, too!

Science Gifties

Evelyn Mervine has the definitive list of gift ideas for geologists, by geologists. You’re sure to find something good here, but in case you need more ideas, Agile has also got some suggestions.

I’d like to plug Edmund Scientifics, because when that whole uproar started over gendered science kits, even though they weren’t the main offenders, they responded by doing the right thing and ending the gender segregation. Check them out for a little something for the Young Scientist on your list. They have a remote-controlled flying shark on the front page right now. How awesome is that?

Rocks In a Hard Place offers some fabulous items for the geologist on your list, and comes recommended by Garry Hayes. Their front page alone made me scream with joy. They’ve got fluorescent bloody minerals, and really, who doesn’t want fluorescent bloody minerals?

Also, there’s Mini Me Geology, which has some adorable options, and there’s that Austin Powers reference in the name, which makes them all the more awesome. Plus, Rock Detective kits. Seriously, where was that shit when I was growing up?! Recommended by Kate from Iowa.

Do you know someone who doesn’t own Brian Switek’s Written in Stone yet? Remedy that immediately!

And, this may not exist yet, but what an idea:

Surely this should be on every geologist's christmas wishlist? I want one. via @ http://t.co/bCa3MahU
@Volcanologist
Dr Rebecca Williams

Here’s a one-stop shop for the geek on your list from Double X Science.

For Those Less-Than-Loved Ones

Our own Stephanie Zvan uncovered a treasure trove of ideas for those obligatory gifts you must present to people you’d rather not buy a gift for, and will present with a present only because social niceties demand you do so. Even if you haven’t got one of those people in your life, read the post – it’s good for a belly laugh.

Charitable Works

Speaking of belly laughs, bust your gut laughing and find some good causes to give to at The Bloggess, where The James Garfield Christmas (And Hanukah) Miracle Returns. Sort of. This also ties in beautifully with the begrudging gift category. See Miracle #3.

And the JAYFK is having its Holiday Vaccine Drive. This is a fabulous thing – you can, for not much money, potentially vaccinate an entire village. We wish each other good health every season. Why not do more than wish?

Too Poor For Awesome Gifts

Are you kidding? Srsly? You can afford whole worlds!

Sign at Powell's Books

Doesn’t even have to be a new book – plenty of beautiful stuff at used bookstores at a great price. Doesn’t even have to be a physical book – get an ebook for those with ereaders, and you can afford even more!

But if you’re super-amazing poor, don’t forget the greatest toys of all time, which often don’t cost a thing. Give a copy of that post along with the toy, and you might make it out alive.

And always, always, remember the love. Give plenty o’ that, and get plenty back, my darlings!

Why SF Is Important

Last Sunday, I posted my own thoughts on the importance of speculative fiction. Okay, yes, it was a rant. I do that sometimes, when things get up my nose.

We’re going to follow up here today with a fantastic post that inspired me to post that one. It’s called In Defense of Geekery: Why Society Needs SF/F. It’s written by Becky Chambers. I want to buy her a drink. I want to buy her several. Because she managed to say what I needed to say in far fewer words:

The other kicker is that our stories are ones that could be, not ones that are. This is a vital distinction. If I tell you a disturbing story, and I say, “this is how it is right now,” you may be motivated to do something about it. More likely, however, you will end up like me and my friends, picking at fries and feeling hopeless. You’ll feel pessimistic and disillusioned. You’ll feel like our species totally sucks.
But if I show you a fantastical place – even a scary one – that lights up all the little imaginative parts of your brain, and I tell you, “this is how it could be,” that opens up a whole new realm of possibilities.

“This is how it could be.” That’s exactly what we writers of SF are telling folks, only we’re not bawling it in their faces, but whispering it in their ears. We’re giving them a delicious tingle down the spine. We’re giving them ideas. We are, in fact, inspiring them.

Here, for me, is the money quote, one I may have to have printed on pamphlets to distribute in venues where Very Helpful People may approach me to advise I am wasting my life and my talents writing fantasy when I could be writing something useful instead:

But what about fantasy? Fantasy can’t exist, no matter how we may long for a dragon heartstring wand or a dire wolf pup. What value can there be in exploring an impossible world?
Well, what if we frame the question differently? What if we ask, “What value can there be in exploring character studies in heroism, friendship, creativity, perseverance, and bravery?”
…yeah, that’s not even a question.

It’s really not.

And the brilliant thing about what we SF writers do is this: we change lives and minds, inspire people to do great things (read the whole of Becky’s article, and you will see how Star Trek gave a little girl the stars), perhaps even save the world, and we do it whilst entertaining the hell out of them.

There are some great jobs in this world. I personally think being a geologist is near the top, and there’s stuff like firefighter and astronaut and cake decorator that are a damned lot of fun and make people’s lives better. There are many careers a person can have that are fun, rewarding, and necessary.

But I personally can’t think of one I love more than SF Author.

Wellsprings of Inspiration Part II: Movies and Teevee

One of the cardinal rules of writing is read, read, read.  Read broadly and deeply.  Read everything you can get your hands on.  And there’s this sense that, unless you’re writing scripts, you should really turn off the teevee, avoid the theater, and just read.

But you know something?  This is weird, maybe, but I didn’t really start improving as a writer until I started watching.  I hit a plateau and stayed there for a bit.  Yeah, friends and family thought I was some shit, but they’re my friends and family – of course they liked my stuff.  Or at least were kind enough to say they did.

I think my problem was that I had a hard time visualizing things.  I’d have a few visual images, but a lot of what happened in my scenes was abstract to me.  But then I stopped watching movies and teevee as entertainment and started viewing it as work.  Really fun work, but work nevertheless.

A perfect storm of things came together when I was writing the novel inspired by C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy.  I wanted to write an anti-hero.  Not a hero in tarnished armor, but a really truly true anti-hero.  Didn’t have any idea where to find one in my story world.  Then my best friend came out for an impromptu visit caused by his girlfriend’s parents breaking up with him.  He brought the best of  Highlander.  He introduced me to Methos.  Something went bing! in my mind.  I watched a few episodes in a sort of stupor and then, while Garrett slept, went out for a walk in the dark.  And a voice started speaking to me, telling me the story of his life in a cultured British accent.  I’d found my anti-hero.  He’s got Peter Wingfield’s voice, Methos’s survival instinct, and no real morals to speak of.  Readers loved to hate him and, by the end, hated to love him.  Perfect.

Don’t ask me why, but Mission; Impossible II ended up being a huge goad to creativity while I was writing that book.  I had a routine established while I was finishing the book: get off work, go to the theater to see MI2, go home and write my heart out.  None of the characters are anything like my anti-hero.  None of the situations were even close.  But there was something about it that made the words flow.  The Muse is an odd duck.

But it really all began with…

Buffy and Angel.  A friend of mine moved in, bringing his collection with him.  I hadn’t had cable for years at that point, had barely watched a movie, much less a television show, and didn’t intend to watch this.  When he asked if I minded if he put it in, I humored him.  Yeah, sure, why not, if it’ll make you happy?  Well, he knows me too well.  He put in that episode where Spike’s up on a rooftop making fun of Angel, and it was all over from there.  Totally hooked.  I watched all available seasons for both series start to finish in the course of a couple of months.  I bought all of the DVDs.  I barely slept.  Because it wasn’t just a couple of shows to me, it was a seminar.  Joss Whedon’s a brilliant man.  He knows how to tell stories.  And if you listen to the commentary, he’ll tell you how to tell stories, too.

I wrote his words o’ wisdom down on notecards.  I took what I’d learned and applied it to my own writing.  Scene-blocking came much more easily.  The romantic bits that had to be there for the plot stopped feeling so awfully stilted.  The Big Bad (yes, I ripped that term from him) started looking a little less cliche.  I can point to that period in my life as one where everything changed.  My writing took off in a new and necessary direction.

Then came Firefly.  I’d needed some science fiction.  Sure, it’s space cowboy stuff, but it’s outstanding space cowboy stuff, and it’s Joss Whedon.  That is all I need to say.

Even with Buffy and Angel’s influence, though, I still sucked at the passionate stuff.  Until Alias.  Watching the way J.J. Abrams worked the romantic angles in to very face-paced storytelling helped immensely.  And another thing I learned from him that’s proven hugely valuable: don’t be afraid to reference off-camera events.  Do it.  Let your characters talk about things the viewer (or reader) will never directly see and won’t really figure out.  It gives the sense of a whole huge world that exists when the viewer isn’t viewing.  It makes the whole thing feel more real.  As long as you don’t make a big deal over it, it’s a great trick for fleshing out the world, and telling the audience your characters have lives that go on out of their sight.

I don’t watch Alias anymore unless I’ve got a few months free, because I know what happens: I’ll be working on the later books in the series.  There’s just something about it that really unleashes the Muse on that time period.

But even Alias didn’t do half as much for me as The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I knew Tolkien had inspired very nearly every fantasy writer out there, but I had no use for him.  Too wordy, too archaic, and I really didn’t like Hobbits.  I went to see Fellowship because a coworker had no one to go with, and I’d heard it was good.  Came out of it hyperventilating.  That.  That.  That was it.  The sum total of everything I’d ever hoped to accomplish: the drama, the richness of the detail, the compelling characters and tough decisions and impossible odds, the beauty, the darkness….  I went out and got my hands on every book on Tolkien I could find, finally read The Lord of the Rings for myself, and tore down my world in order to rebuild from the ground up (a project still ongoing).  Seeing the differences between the books and the movies showed me a thing or two about revision.  There’s no part of my writing that those movies, books and all the rest hasn’t affected.  And yes, when you see pictures of me and see that ring around my neck, that is indeed the One Ring.  I wear it because I made a promise, and because it reminds me of what’s most important in my life: the stories.  Always the stories.

Yes, I know.  I’m a tremendous geek.  Well, you would be, too, if your whole life had got changed like that.

Believe it or not, Batman Begins is the real driving force behind one of the most important characters in the series.  I’d loved Batman for a long time, mind you.  The idea of a fully-human superhero definitely informs my main character, who’s got all of these amazing powers not by virtue of being born that way, but because, like Bruce Wayne, she works her ass off.  They’re quite a lot alike, those two, and I’ve always known it.  But that was comic book Batman.  When I saw Batman Begins, it felt like looking at Sovaal in a mirror.  When you see the trajectory of his life and what he is now, you might catch an echo of it, too.  Their lives have been very, very different, but that melancholy intensity Christian Bale brought to the character of Batman is Sovaal to a T.  And, considering the series is, at core, all about Sovaal, that’s important.  The movie gets him talking.  Considering how rarely he talks, that’s an extraordinary gift.

I want to state something for the record right now: I wasn’t watching House when I wrote up some of my main character’s habits, like her propensity for scribbling on markerboards and hounding people for ideas.  I’d already written that scene when, one night, ill with labyrinthitis, I collapsed on the couch and decided to see what my roommate had on the DVR.  It turned out to be an episode of House, and I watched in slack-jawed amazement as Dr. House did the things Dusty does.  I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised.  Both of them are somewhat isolated geniuses and Sherlock Holmes fans.

Later, House inspired the psychiatrist character who occasionally pops in for a bit of perspective and random comic relief.  And the show has validated my markerboard scenes.  I shall let them stand, even though I’ll be accused of imitation.

Finally, we come to the reason why I’ve spent a week pre-loading a month of blog posts in an effort to clear my calendar: Doctor Who.  And I would, once again, like to state for the record that I was not a Doctor Who fan and had never seen a single episode of the show when I was writing many of the scenes in which my main character displays a smart-ass sense of humor whilst leaping into chaos with manic delight.  Yes, she sounds very much like the Doctor, so much so that when I read out a few bits to my best friend a few weeks ago, he gasped in shock and then started howling with delighted laughter.  As he says, she is the Doctor for her universe.  That wasn’t intentional.  It just happened.

That said, I’m finding enormous inspiration in this show.  The storytelling is so compelling that it feels simultaneously like an addiction and like falling in love at first sight.  And the reason it compels me so is that it’s prompted me to look at my universe with new eyes.  The Doctor’s eyes, even so.  Which has forced me to question long-
held assumptions.  There are many bits I knew were weak, many places where there was a lot of hand-waving and a hearty, “That’s just the way it is!” in place of a valid explanation.  There were assumptions I didn’t even know needed questioning until I started viewing things through the Doctor’s eyes.  It’s poured new life into the stories I want to tell.  It’s given me a new passion for storytelling, for figuring things out, for doing the hard thinking.  And I can no longer claim to be an atheist, as I am busy worshiping Steven Moffat. 

There are other shows and movies that have inspired bits and pieces, but the above are the main drivers.  They’re the ones I can point to and say, “They made me a far better writer.”  They keep me writing.  They allow me to experience my story worlds with all my senses.  And that, my dear flummoxed friends, is why I’ll sit here obsessively watching them dozens of times over.  It’s not entertainment so much as education.

Not to mention the most important thing: inspiration.

Wellsprings of Inspiration Part I: Novels and How-To

Glacial Till asking about how I became a blogger and Nicole asking about my long-term writing goals got me to thinking about inspiration.

Inspiration doesn’t always come standard.  There are times when the magma chamber’s emptied, and there’s a dormant phase before the volcano’s ready to erupt again.  I’ve gotten used to those phases, resigned to them, one might say.  But I don’t sit idle.  Magma chambers don’t fill all by themselves.  There has to be a source.  And I’d like to talk about some of those sources.

We’ll skip childhood, although I reserve the right to revisit the authors who set my feet on this road in some future musing.  And we’ll just have a shout-out to me mum, who spent a good portion of her young life feeding stories to an insatiable kiddo.  Without her, we wouldn’t be discussing writing, because I wouldn’t be a writer.

Right, then.  We should start with Robert Jordan.  I hadn’t planned on writing fantasy.  Hated fantasy, in fact, until a friend forced me to read The Eye of the World.  When I finished that book, I knew what I had to do.  I had to write fantasy.  And the later books in the Wheel of Time have kept me on that road.  Robert Jordan taught me the importance of building a richly-detailed world with vivid characters.  And because of him, I don’t fear writing maclargehuge books.

Another Robert, R.A. Salvatore, planted my feet further along the fantasy road.  You wouldn’t think that a series of books based on a roleplaying game would be all that special, but if you think that, you haven’t read The Dark Elf Trilogy.  Fiction, I learned, and particularly fantasy fiction, was an excellent way of exploring the really essential issues, the ones too tough to face head-on.  And yes, Virginia, you can write a pulse-pounding sword battle.  I once stayed up finishing one of his books by candlelight because the power had gone out right in the middle of one of those battles, and there was no way in the universe I was going to just set it aside until the sun rose.  That’s how intense he writes ‘em.

Another friend foisted Neil Gaiman’s Sandman on me.  Before I read Preludes and Nocturnes, I wasn’t a comic book fan.  After, I was.  Spent an entire afternoon in Phoenix going from bookstore to comic shop in search of absolutely everything he’d ever written up till that point.  Neil Gaiman showed me the power of myth and how to weave it through stories, and why it’s so very important to do so.

When I made the decision to write science fiction and fantasy, I decided that getting a book called How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card might be an excellent idea.  To this day, it remains one of the most valuable how-to-write books I’ve ever read.  And since that had been so good, I picked up Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead to see how well Orson practiced his preaching.  Pretty damned well.  Speaker for the Dead remains one of my favorite books of all time.

The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman taught me the value of a good anti-hero.  I still think it’s one of the absolute best trilogies in all of science fiction and fantasy, and I feel very sorry for people who haven’t read it.

Connie Willis blew me away.  Absolutely left nothing but scattered atoms behind.  One of my major goals is to become the kind of writer that writers like Neil Gaiman and Connie Willis read, because then I’ll know I’ve made it.  I mean, we’re talking about a woman who can tell you, the reader, something the narrator doesn’t know when writing in the first person.  I didn’t think anyone on earth had writing chops like that.  She also got me interested in science fiction per se, because in her hands, it’s far more than just rivets.  She showed me it’s possible to be funny and profound and tragic, sometimes all in the same page.  She’s amazing.

Lynn Flewelling and her Nightrunner series showed me it’s completely possible to write kick-ass, non-preachy gay characters.  I’m indebted to her for that.  And for the best brothel scene ever.  I love those books.  They make me feel that all’s right with the world.

Terry Pratchett honed my humor skillz.  And showed me that it’s possible to mix science and magic to excellent effect.  And created some of the characters I love most in this world.  Sam Fucking Vimes and Granny Bloody Weatherwax, people, that’s all I’m saying.

Warren Ellis did things to my brain with Stormwatch and The Authority I’ll spend the rest of my life sorting out.  His Jenny Sparks is one of the most hardcore female characters ever written by any author anywhere in the world.  And he did with superheroes what no one had ever done before: he dodged away from the tired old vigilante or forces-for-good wanker tropes and headed straight for, “We’ve got this immense power.  We’re goddamn going to use it to make this world a better place.  Under our terms.”

Which leads me to J. Michael Straczynski’s Rising Stars, another superhero comic that went where no superhero comic had gone before.  That one forces you to face issues and questions and dilemmas that most superhero books are too busy beating up the bad guys to pause and consider.

And no comic book paen would be complete without mentioning Warren Ellis again: Transmetropolitan.  Killed my fear of taking characters to an extreme, that did.  And I want to be Spider Jerusalem when I grow up.

Back into regular books…. I love reading the gritty stuff, but I’m not particularly good at writing it.  What I really, really want to be able to do is write symphonies with words.  And there are a few authors who do a particularly fine job of that.

Rober
t Holdstock’s Mythago books weave a peculiar kind of magic.  Incredibly haunting stuff.  Utterly mindbending.  And I had the bizarre experience of reading Lavondyss for a second time after years away, and it seemed like the entire book had changed.  I sometimes wonder: if I open the book again, what will I find?  What will it have become?

Patricia McKillip writes some of the richest, most lyrical books I’ve ever known.  Just read The Book of Atrix Wolfe.  That’s all I ask.

And Guy Gavriel Kay.  Oh, reading him, it’s like sailing a sea of sound and sensation.  It’s like a voyage home through fantastic places.  When I read The Lions of al-Rassan, I knew, just knew, that was the way I wanted to write.  Not what, mind, just how.  I want my words to flow and dance like that.  I want to leave my readers with that feeling, a bit of delightful melancholy, a glorious uplift. 

But how to get there?

There was this one book on writing, the one single book I believe every aspiring author, no matter what genre, should read.  It’s called Writing the Breakout Novel.  I almost didn’t read it because the title sounded too much like that schlocky foolproof-method-for-writing-bestsellers! bullshit that’s so often foisted upon the unwary.  But I picked it up, and read a few pages, and realized this was something altogether different.  It utterly changed my perspective.  Donald Maas isn’t talking about a formula for flash-in-the-pan fiction.  He’s talking about writing the kind of novel that endures for generations.  When I read that book, it forced me to reassess everything I’d ever planned to do, and put me on a new trajectory.  I was able to figure out what my stories were all about, really, at core.  And it gave me the patience to go back, strip everything down to the fundamentals, and start rebuilding from the ground up.

Finally (and you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), J.R.R. Tolkien.  This is a nice transition from Part I to II, because I didn’t like Tolkien until I’d seen Peter Jackson’s masterpiece.  I mean, really, seriously, didn’t like Tolkien at all.  But as you’ll see, those movies got right down into my soul.  I saw on screen what I’d always hoped to do in print.  This led me to attempt The Lord of the Rings again.  This time, loved it.  But I didn’t stop there.  I read other books by him: Tree and Leaf, Father Giles of Ham.  I read books about him: biographies, letters, essays by authors inspired by him, books on how he’d created Middle Earth.  I learned about his languages and his motives and all of the things he’d done to make that world come alive.  It was quite the education.  And that was when I went from being a two-bit hack to being someone who could actually begin to craft a story.

So there you go.  There’s some of my major influences.  Next episode, we’ll move on to the movies and television programs that have inspired me, some of which have filled the magma chamber to such a degree that we’ve ended up with VEI-8 eruptions.

How It All Began

Here we are, then: the first in the series of user-generated topics.  Glacial Till writes:

I think a post on your blogging history would be cool. What led you to blogging? Who are your inspirations and such. 

Oh, my.  Let’s see if I can remember back that far…

Got me start on LiveJournal, actually, many years ago, babbling about writing with and for some excellent writerly friends.  Started me own (now-defunct) website after a bit, still writing on writing, but this was the height of the Bush regime and so some political rants crept in as my liberal tendencies were unleashed.  Because friends had forced me to sign up for a MySpace account and because it was easier to blog there, I migrated for a bit – you can still see it here, if you’re that bored.

And those, you might say, are the prequels to ETEV.  So why did this blog start?

Because I couldn’t take it any more.

The rampant political stupidity that made me want to howl from the rooftops.  The rampant IDiots, running about mucking up biology education and making hideous movies like Expelled.  Not to mention all of the other rank stupidity stampeding through the world.  MySpace wasn’t a good platform for the full-throated rants necessary to counter it.

PZ’s the one who inspired me to start this blog, and to celebrate science upon it despite the fact I’m no more than an interested layperson.  This post, right here, is one you should go read right now, because it explains everything this blog became.

Well, nearly.  Getting adopted by the rock stars of geology set ETEV on a whole new course.  Somehow, it had evolved from a foul-mouthed baby blog focused on political stupidity with a smattering of science into something that geobloggers recognized as one of their own, even if I couldn’t see that.  But they inspired me to work me arse off delivering the goods.  And that’s fostered my interest in science, which feeds back into my writing, and ever onward in an endless circle.

This is still very much an amateur effort.  Someday, maybe even sooner than I expect, I’ll make the leap into full-time professional writing.  And I’ll get there because of the bloggers like PZ and Bora who showed me the importance of this medium, and the geobloggers and other science bloggers who showed me that all it takes is hard work and passion to write something worthy of reading.  But they’re only part of the equation.  I’ll get there because of the inspiration provided by my favorite authors and fellow fiction writers/bloggers like Nicole.

I’ll get there because of my readers.  Yes, you – the one sitting there reading this post right now.  Without you, do you think any of this would be possible?  Do you think I’d still be dedicating so much time and effort to these pages, if it wasn’t for you?  Without you, I’d spend that time in front of the teevee, or tucked in bed with an improving book, or practicing karate with the cat, when I wasn’t struggling on alone with a very difficult fiction novel.  And I’d be less of a writer because of it.  Not to mention, I wouldn’t have half the motivation to go out and have adventures and take the very best pictures I can.

So, dear reader, when you ask where my inspiration comes from, the very first thing you should do is go find a mirror.

And now I shall take the opportunity to give a special shout-out to my geoblogging inspirations.  I read more geoblogs than I list here, but these are the folks who, combined, form the star I revolve around.  In no particular order, then:

Silver Fox at Looking for Detachment
Lockwood DeWitt at Outside the Interzone
Glacial Till at Glacial Till
Ron Schott at Geology Home Companion
Brian Romans at Clastic Detritus
Ann Jefferson and Chris Rowan at Highly Allochthonous
Dan McShane at Reading the Washington Landscape
Wayne Ranney at Earthly Musings
Elli Goeke at Life in Plane Light

I want to mention four bloggers in particular who have provided more support, encouragement, and food for thought over the years than I ever expected.  They’re fantastic bloggers and even more fantastic friends:

Cujo at Slobber and Spittle
George at Decrepit Old Fool
Suzanne at Two Ton Green Blog
Woozle at The Hypertwins Memorial High-Energy Children Supercollider Laboratory and Research Center for the Inhumanities.  Okay, so it’s not technically a blog, but who cares?  Especially with a name like that!

A special shout-out to the man who made me believe in bloggers, and who got me thinking and writing about politics so many years ago: Steve Benen at The Washington Monthly.  Before him, I didn’t really take blogs seriously.  He’s an incredible talent, a wonderful human being, and still the one political blog I turn to when I haven’t got time for more.

And, finally, a very special shout-out to Karen, whose comments have so often given me that much needed prod in the arse necessary to keep me going.  How I wish you’d start a blog!

Kevin Smith on Living the Dream

If you don’t know who Kevin Smith is, you’ve been living in a box buried in a caved-in cave.  He’s the wildly-successful filmmaker behind Mallrats, Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma, among others.  He’s done a run on Daredevil, and I have to say he’s just as excellent at writing comics as he is making movies.  He may not be your thing, but you can’t avoid the fact he’s living the dream.

I’ve been in love with him since Clerks.  He’d captured life as a cashier perfectly.  So yeah, maybe I’m a little partial.  So sue me.

He’s started doing #Smonologues on Twitter.  You can find the very first one here, and it’s awesome, but the one I want to highlight is here.  It is a kick in the arse.  It is a reminder of the truly important shit.  And even if you’re not a “creative” person, even if what you want to do in your life has nothing to do with writing or filmmaking or art of any kind, you still need to get your arse kicked, because sometimes buttocks need prodding before you’re motivated to go live your dreams.

So here you go:

But before all of that, you gotta start with the idea – and not just the idea for the story/movie/novel/installation/song/podcast/whatever. You gotta start with the idea that you can do this – something that’s not normally done by everybody else. Since it’s not second nature to take leaps of faith, you have to SMotivate yourself. Even invent language, if you have to. Embrace a reasonable amount of unreasonability.

But nobody else can believe in you if you don’t believe in what you’re doing. I’ve willed almost all the stuff I’ve done into existence, and if I can do that, anybody can do that. So start your chatter: talk about what you’re going to do. Don’t pursue a role, LIVE that role. Like my sister told me, back when I confessed I wanted to be a filmmaker…

“Then BE a filmmaker,” she said. 

“That’s what I’m saying: I wanna be.”

And that’s when she gave me the million dollar advice…

“No – BE a filmmaker. You say you wanna be; just BE a filmmaker. Think every thought AS a filmmaker. Don’t pine for it or pursue it; BE it. You ARE a filmmaker; you just haven’t made a film yet.” 

And it sounded artsy-fartsy as fuck, but it was CRAZY useful advice. A slacker hit the sheets that night, but the CLERKS-guy got out of bed the following morning. 

So plant the seeds early & take as much time as it requires to will your goals into existence. Keep a few going, you’ll never get bored. Expect moments of discouragement, but don’t wallow in them. Remember that if an ass-hat like Kevin Smith can succeed at something like film or life, then what the fuck is stopping YOU from doing the same? I was not ‘to the manor born’. This shit was not manifest, nor was it ever offered.

And just remember that, when you read about some deal or project, sometimes that’s just some bluffy motherfucker trying to change his or her game by willing some shit into existence. 

Only guy I ever heard of who got an amazing life literally handed to him was Hal Jordan. Don’t wait for a dying alien to give you a magic ring: just do it yourself, Slappy. We can’t all be Superman, but we sure as shit can train hard, and with loads of practice, we can elevate our simple, non-Kryptonian selves to be the Batman. And who the fuck doesn’t wanna be Batman? Batman has an impeccable moral compass. He’s clever & mysterious. And when fucktards get sassy, he punches them in the face. Plus, that car.

Ideas cost nothing yet have the potential to yield inexplicably long careers & happy lives. So go ahead: dream a l’il dream. #SMonologueOff

Be it.  Live it.

This is your year.  No excuses.

BE.

The Wolf in the Fault and Other Stories

I have to admit something: I may be an atheist, but I’m also a complete sucker for Norse mythology.  When I shared my home with cockroaches, I even sacrificed them to Odin.  It’s somehow more satisfying that way.

Every Thursday, I squee with glee, because I know it’s Thorsday at Lockwood’s place.  I love all of the old Norse gods and goddesses, their monsters and giants, their epic tales and their strange Nordic sense of humor.  A good portion of my writing has been inspired by them.  The imagery, the poetry, all of it’s just perfect for creating something fantastic.  Seeing Lockwood’s posts on the subject brings back all the delight of discovering that non-Greek and Roman mythology kicks serious arse.

Last Thorsday, Lockwood had a bit up on Loki, which inspired David Bressan to delve until he came up with a connection between Norse mythology and earthquakes.  The rest, as they say, is the History of Geology, which in this installment shows the mythical connection between the dire wolf Fenrir (Fenris, if you prefer) and earthquakes (and sparks a little reaction of its own).  Before professional geologists, earthquake science went to the wolves, eh?

Ragnarök obsesses one of my main characters, Chretien Pratt.  The twilight of the gods provides a fitting metaphor for what the world faces in this series (I’m not nice), and imagery of Fenrir swallowing the sun at the end of all things haunts him in his unfinished origin story, where he’s learned he’s fated to speak the world’s eulogy:

I dream of nuclear winter, ash like snow covering the bare branches of blasted trees and shrubs, broken walls of houses, pitted concrete and melted asphalt where streets and cities used to be.

There are no people here, just the great wolf Fenrir swallowing the sun.  When I look at him, I see that he has Jusadan’s gray eyes, and he is weeping.

***

Fenrir’s mouth burns from the heat.  The sun is halfway down.  Only a sliver lights the landscape now, and it’s thin and cold like watery gold moonlight.  Ash drifts down; heavy, silent, bitter.  I smell charred wolf flesh, old decay from a billion rotted bodies, the burned-ozone tang of radiation.

Shades of the dead fill my vision for a hundred thousand miles.  I only see a fraction of them here in this charred shell that used to be a city park, but they represent the totality.  Through them, I see all the rest, and all of them hear me.  I stand on the crumbling edge of a fountain whose statue melted into the pool halfway through the war, hand clenched around the handle of a scythe sharp enough to slice the quarks from a photon.  I have to speak, but I still don’t know what the words are.

I never wanted this.  I never wanted to be the last, and now I am forever.

Someday, we’ll talk about Odin as well, who has the unfortunate fate of being munched by Fenrir there at the end.  Did I mention I’m not nice to my characters?  Well, the Norse were really not nice to their gods.

That’s probably why I love them so.

It’s Not ADD! It’s Creativity!

So Jonah Leher at Frontal Cortex has this post up: Are Distractible People More Creative?  Well, being a distractible person who likes to believe she’s creative, I found myself clicking through – after, of course, getting distracted by a few other things, like making dinner while watching Head Rush and trying to catch up on Pharyngula.

Turns out there’s good news for the terminally distracted:

Consider a recent study by neuroscientists at Harvard and the University of Toronto that documents the benefits of all these extra thoughts. (It was replicated here.) The researchers began by giving a sensory test to a hundred undergraduates at Harvard. The tests were designed to measure their level of latent inhibition, which is the capacity to ignore stimuli that seem irrelevant. Are you able to not think about the air-conditioner humming in the background? What about the roar of the airplane overhead? When you’re at a cocktail party, can you tune out the conversations of other people? If so, you’re practicing latent inhibition. While this skill is typically seen as an essential component of attention – it keeps us from getting distracted by extraneous perceptions – it turns out that people with low latent inhibition have a much richer mixture of thoughts in working memory. This shouldn’t be too surprising: Because they struggle to filter the world, they end up letting everything in. As a result, their consciousness is flooded with seemingly unrelated thoughts. Here’s where the data gets interesting:  Those students who were classified as “eminent creative achievers” – the rankings were based on their performance on various tests, as well as their real world accomplishments – were seven times more likely to “suffer” from low latent inhibition. This makes some sense: The association between creativity and open-mindedness has long been recognized, and what’s more open-minded than distractability? People with low latent inhibition are literally unable to close their mind, to keep the spotlight of attention from drifting off to the far corners of the stage. The end result is that they can’t help but consider the unexpected.

One of the reasons I write at night is because I’m so very bad at filtering out distractions.  There’s less of that in the wee hours – noisy neighbors go to bed, Twitter and email slack off, phone doesn’t ring (not that I keep my ringers on anyway), cat’s usually mellowing on the couch and friends aren’t begging me to head out for some fun.  I still manage to lose incredible amounts of prime writing time haring off after tangential factoids, spelunking the intertoobz for things unrelated to my original query, and ten thousand other things unrelated to what I should be doing.  For instance, this paragraph just took me several minutes longer than it should have because I kept messing around trying to rid myself of minor discomforts, pulling up various and sundry songs, and thinking about a zillion other things.


If the research is right, that sort of distractibility is one of the reasons I can build worlds and tell stories.  Instead of cursing it, I should probably be reveling in it.  However, I got distracted on the way to the celebration.  Well, “The Human Stain” is an incredible song.  And my hair needed adjusting.  And Yoshitaka Amano and Michael Whelan are incredible artists, so of course I had to spend a moment appreciating their works on my walls.  Did I ever tell you about the time I talked to Michael Whelan’s wife?  She’d called in to order business forms for their gallery back when I worked for the printing company.  When I found out who she was, I asked her if I could ask a very personal question – how old is Michael?  (This was back before the intertoobz could answer each and every trivial question without having to embarrass oneself.)  She told me.  And I said, “Oh, thank the gods.  I wanted him to still be alive so he can do my cover art when I’m finally published!”  She laughed and said Michael would be delighted to oblige.  She’s a lovely person, and one of my fondest memories.  And yes, I still want Michael’s art gracing my novels.


Where were we?  Oh, yes.  Distracted people and creativity.  Righty-o.  So, this is the article I shall shove at anyone who accuses me of having ADD.  Look, it’s not illness, it’s inspiration!


Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just gotten distracted by something else…

Tip o’ the shot glass to Brian Romans.

In Which I Tell You About That Time I Read the Koran

George has this habit of making me think.  Last night, he voiced every thought I wish I had the eloquence to voice on the whole Koran-burning-pastor kerfluffle.  If you haven’t read it, go now and do so.

Sums it up rather wonderfully.  And then, there’s his promised response, Protesting Xenophobic Ignorance.   Yes!  That’s how it’s done!  Counterpoint to useless drivel, beautifully-delivered, and without hyperventilation.  Now, if only the religious folk would learn how to react so productively, we might have a dialogue going, and might even enjoy doing it – even when we point and laugh at each other.  Far better than overheated threats of violence and/or howls of “Help!  Help!  I’m being repressed because these people don’t agree with me!”

So, that, together with PZ’s take, pretty much sums up my feelings on the matter.  Besides, if the First Amendment’s to mean anything, some outrageous idiot has the perfect right to burn mass-produced copies of a book on their own property.  Hell, Christians do it to Harry Potter all the time, and I sincerely hope they’ll do me the same favor.  Might I suggest marshmallows with that religious frenzy?  Seems a waste of a good fire otherwise.

Anyway.  Due to the fact I had to be at work for twelve fucking hours today, I missed the whole Koran-reading thing.  That’s not to say I haven’t read many bits of the Koran, and actually appreciated several.  I’ll cannibalize anything for inspiration, thee knows.  Back in the days when I had a desk, I used to have the self-same edition George was reading sitting by the computer.  When I got blocked, I’d have a good flip through its pages until something caught my eye.  And I thought I’d share some of those moments for Day-After-Read-a-Koran Day.

Wanna know how an atheist finds inspiration in religious literature?  Then read on.  There’s even some religious conflict!

Ah, good, the gang’s all here.  Shall try not to bore you.

I have one completed novel under my belt, written when I was mightily annoyed at the soggy knights-in-tarnished-armor being trotted out as antiheroes at the time.  Alas, it’s set close to the end of the series I intend to write, so its dawn upon the world stage shall have to wait.  In medias res is one thing, but that would be taking the concept a bit far.  Because I write horribly out-of-sequence, and furthermore needed to know where things ended up in order to know where they should begin, I jumped to events arising out of that novel, and ran into two characters I’m going to enjoy foisting upon the literary stage someday.  One is the main evil human dude, and then there’s his accomplice, who practically worships him.  Worships for a good reason, as this passage from the Koran so eloquently captures:

From Daylight:

By the light of day, and by the dark of night, your Lord has not forsaken you, nor does He abhor you.


The life to come holds a richer prize for you than this present life.  You shall be gratified by what your Lord will give you.


Did He not find you an orphan and give you shelter?
Did He not find you in error and guide you?
Did He not find you poor and enrich you?

When I stumbled upon that, it led to much fruitful exploring of the relationship between these two characters, and the conflicts and plot twists that arise from it.  And yes, our poor dear worshiper was literally plucked from an orphanage by a lord – in this case, a Duke – which is why that passage caught my eye.

I have a short story collection planned, to be entitled Cautionary Tales.  The stories span the time and space of my story universe, which is a lot of territory.  What binds them together is the theme of mistakes, hence the title.  And wouldn’t you know it?  The Koran has the perfect title quote:

Cautionary tales, profound in wisdom, have been narrated to them: but warnings are unavailing.

I’ll take it!

There’s some fantastic end-of-days-doom-and-destruction bits in the Koran, ripe pickings for the dire stuff.  I have an entire sequence built around three quotes:

The Cessation

When the heavens shall be stripped bare, when Hell shall be set blazing, when Paradise shall be brought near; then each soul shall know what it has done.

The
Cataclysm

…each soul shall know what it has done and what it has failed to do.

The
Cessation

Whither then are you going?

Now, you’ll just have to trust me that these fragments work wonderfully well in context, because right now the context is in dire need of a good revision.  But the three perfectly capture a person balanced on the edge of a critical decision, and I love them for that.

I’ve noticed that most religious texts have bits and pieces which, when polished and placed in a new setting, sparkle very prettily.  And in historical context, some of the less-beautiful bits can shine as well.  Take this one:

When the sun shall be darkened,
When the stars shall be thrown down,
When the mountains shall be set moving,
When the pregnant camels shall be neglected,
When the savage beasts shall be mustered,
When the seas shall be set alight,
When the infant girl buried alive shall be asked
for what crime she has been slain,
When the records of men’s deeds shall be laid open,
When the heavens shall be stripped bare,
When Hell shall be set blazing,
When paradise shall be brought near,
Then each soul shall know what it has done.

My Islamic Civ professor noted that in ancient Arabia, it was terribly common for female infants to be exposed.  No value in a girl.  Mohammed frowned on that practice.  She explained that, as repressive as the Koran seems toward women, it was actually a vast improvement over how women were treated in those days.  She also taught Women’s Issues, so although I haven’t fully explored the context myself and a quick read through Wikipedia’s entry suggests a mixed bag, I’ll provisionally take her word for it.  That’s not to say Islam hasn’t stagnated and even backslid in the women’s rights department – it has, and rather severely.  But at least the Koran advised that murdering babies just because they’re not your preferred gender isn’t a righteous practice.  I’ll grant it that.

(Not surprising that Mohammed showed a wee bit more respect toward women than the culture at large tended to at the time.  His first wife was a businesswoman, and one gets the impression she wouldn’t take any shit.  He certainly didn’t risk having multiple wives until she was safely dead.  From what I’ve read of her, I wouldn’t have fucked with her, either.)

The above-quoted passage led to the religious conflict I enticed you with.  A long, long time ago in a workplace far, far away, I’d gone a bit wild with my new color printer and made up a couple of pages to hang at my desk.  One contained that passage; another contained a few quotes from the Tao Te Ching (chapters 2 and 14, if you’re interested), and a third a poem by Neil Gaiman .  During a hiring frenzy, before they ordered new cubicles, it came to pass that we had to share desks: one early and one late person per desk.  And a mystery materialized: when I came in every afternoon, my lovely little hangings were all crooked, and they were developing new tack holes in their corners.  ZOMG WTF??

A coworker explained that when my deskmate came in, she’d spend the first few minutes of her shift busily removing the art from my half of the desk, and the last bit of her shift putting it back up willy-nilly.  So I left her a note: please stop doing that.  Next thing I know, I’m in a conference room with the call center director, my supervisor, and the deskmate, who is slathered in crosses.  She’d called the meeting because she just couldn’t take it anymore.  Those icky horrid quotes from other religions threatened her Christian faith.  She babbled on and on about how very scared they made her.

Oh, yes, you may laugh.  I couldn’t.  I was staring down the barrel of some serious management-power.  After a few moments of stunned silence, in which my supervisor watched me with attentive interest, the call center director looked vaguely worried, and the deskmate looked like she was about to shit herself in fear (sheet-white and shaking she was), I finally said, “So why don’t you just bring in your own poster to cover them up?  You can even use magnets.  There’s a metal strip up there.”

My supervisor nearly passed out.  She’d been holding her breath, you see, because if she’d breathed, she would’ve been screaming with laughter.

The next day, I came in to an enormous, gawdawful Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul poem dangling over my offending art.  Management pulled me in later to advise just how very grown up and diplomatic I was, and thanked me for finding an equitable solution for all.  And yes, we all giggled a bit.  Well, the whole situation had been patently ridiculous.

To this day, if there was one text I would gladly burn, it would be that horrific offense against poetry.  But as I hadn’t bought the poster myself, I refrained from taking it outside for a smoke, though every literature-appreciating coworker begged me to.  That thing caused more angst in the call center than my little bits ever had.  If I ever run across a copy of it for sale, it is Bonfire Day at the Hunter household. 

Bring marshmallows.  I’ll pony up the chocolate and graham crackers.  For it is written, “When life hands you mass-produced ‘literature’ actually worth burning, make s’mores.”

*Update: See this post on Mohammed and Women’s Rights for a good discussion as to why historical context doesn’t mean jack diddly in the modern context.