complications of the writing life

So Dog on Fire is done and out there (although I’m still waiting for it to appear in the Apple and Sony stores). I ought to be doing promotional stuff—and I intend to—but what I really want to do is get engaged with the next project.

The question is, which next project? I have four possibilities. 1) A novel that’s been published already and needs to be converted to e-publishing formats. 2) Another set of short stories. 3) A sort of police procedural/zombie novel. 4) A fantasy novel.

The most logical choice would be #1. I wrote Lightning in the Blood while I was doing the research for my doctoral dissertation. It was published by Saint Martin’s Press. The novel got generally good reviews, sold a few thousand copies, then disappeared—which is the fate of most novels.

But when I look at it now, all I can see are the flaws. It’s about the same two characters who appear in Dog on Fire. Each alternating chapter is narrated by the other character. That works pretty well in short fiction, I think, but not so much in a novel format. That’s exactly why I scrapped the second novel SMP asked for and began to use those characters in short stories.

If I undertake this project—and it would be stupid of me not to—I’ll want to update the novel, both to reflect modern PI tech and to improve bits of it. It would be dull grunt work, but this plan makes the most sense. Which doesn’t seem to weigh much in its favor.

A second book of short detective stories has its appeal. I’ve got maybe half a dozen scenarios sort of semi-sketched out. It would be fun and fairly easy, though time consuming (but then all of these possible projects would be time consuming). I know there’s interest in the characters, so there’s that. And I could probably sell some of the stories for print publication and bring in some extra jing that way. That’s an attractive aspect.

But then there’s the police procedural/zombie idea that’s been banging around in my head for a couple of years. It’s not a traditional zombie ‘must eat brains’ idea. It’s actually more of a civil rights story. Here (and other writers will probably think I’m nuts for putting this out in public) is the basic premise of the story.

Some unknown environment circumstance triggers a viral event which causes a person’s body to effectively meet the legal criteria for death: the heart stops, the circulatory system stops, respiration stops, brain activity stops. Many hours later, the patient revives—after a fashion. The heart doesn’t start beating, but it sort of vibrates; blood no longer circulates through the body, but it sort of quivers like jelly; respiration doesn’t take place, but the virus simulates hemoglobin so closely it deceives the body into behaving as if was receiving oxygenated blood; electrical brain activity resumes but not in any way recognizable by an EEG. The patient’s bodily functions fail to meet the legal criteria for life, but the patient still retains their ability to think, their identity, and a degree of mobility.

Naturally, fear of contagion means these people are quarantined. Over time it’s discovered the virus isn’t transmitted from person to person, but is triggered by some circumstance in the environment. One ‘zombie’ can’t create another ‘zombie.’ Something in nature does that, though most patients come from a very large geographical region (the Southwest).

The story takes place a few years after the outbreak. There’s a population of a few thousand ‘zombies’ who are being detained in one location—the town where the first patient died and revived. They’re confined to the hospital grounds, which has become overcrowded. An isolation zone of several square blocks of empty buildings, established during the early months of the outbreak, surrounds the hospital. Because each ‘zombie’ was declared legally dead, they have extremely limited civil rights. The courts are beginning to hear lawsuits by ‘zombies’ seeking relief from what they consider unlawful detention. It’s believed the courts will soon expand the limited rights of the ‘zombies,’ allowing them to occupy what has been the isolation zone. The community is opposed to the idea. During all this, a living hospital worker is murdered.

Somebody has to investigate the crime, but it appears the killer may be a ‘zombie.’ If so, can a person who is legally dead be arrested and charged with a crime? How could that person possibly be given a trial by their peers? Could the State just dispose of the accused in the way they’d dispose of any other dead body? The investigator has to deal with the political and cultural issues while trying to solve the murder. This stuff fascinates me.

Finally, I’ve been kicking around a fantasy novel for some time. I like the idea of the genre, but not much of the genre itself. I simply haven’t read much fantasy that wasn’t painfully formulaic. Magical swords, potboys who are rightfully the king of the realm, an evil force bent on world domination. That crap bores the hell out of me.

I have an idea for what’s essentially an adventure story that takes place in a border region between two hostile cultures. Again, it’s the clash of cultures that intrigues me. Nothing fancy about it, but it appeals to me.

So I have all these ideas. I just have to make a decision and focus on one of them. It ain’t easy. I’ve already written the novel, so there’s nothing new for me there–but it’s the logical next step. I enjoy writing short stories, but I’ve just finished a collection of them. The zombie market is flooded, and I’m not sure my idea is marketable even though it’s different and I’m sort of jazzed by it. There’s always a huge fantasy market, so that direction would also make sense and maybe be amusing.

The writing life—she is complicated.

one conversation is nearly over

For almost a year I’ve been visiting an odd bit of curbing in a vacant lot where a supermarket was once located. There are two or three places where the curbing of the store’s parking lot had been broken up. It’s not clear if that destruction was accidental, intentional or organic. What was clear, though, was that somebody—for reasons entirely unclear—had tied a length of red PVC wire around a chunk of the broken curbing and carried it some sixty feet away.

And then set it down. I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. Why was it moved from its original position? Why that particular chunk of curbing? Why fashion a carrying handle from red PVC wire when it would be just as easy—easier, in fact—to carry it in your hands? And why leave it where it was left? It made absolutely no sense. I loved it.

Over time, the chunk of curbing was moved again—maybe twenty or thirty feet from its last position, and perhaps it would have been moved farther had the red PVC wire ‘handle’ not snapped. On a later visit I noticed the curbing had been overturned and another chunk of curbing had been carried and set down nearby.

It continued to make no sense, and I continued to be fascinated by it. But now the conversation is almost over. On my last visit, the curbing had been moved once again.

As you can see, the chunk of curbing has been moved and the red PVC wire left behind. In fact, both chunks of curbing have been shifted a few feet from their last positions.

I suspect kids are responsible for most of the recent moving, if only because young boys do things for reasons even they don’t understand—or no reason at all. It doesn’t matter, really who moved them, or even why. There’s something appealing about these migrating chunks of curbing. But the wind will probably blow away the red PVC wire eventually. And then the conversation will be over.

I’ll continue to visit the vacant lot, of course. There’s something about the slow reclamation process that I find weirdly comforting and attractive. There’s a sort of drama to it, though a very patient drama. It’s a different sort of conversation—less peculiar, more fundamental.

This abandoned lot is set on a fairly busy thoroughfare in a moderately poor neighborhood. Nearby is a car-wash, a small local Latino-operated auto repair shop, and an indie copying center that never seems to have any customers. The road noise is vicious—at least until you get near the back of the empty lot. Then it becomes muted, and it’s difficult to distinguish between the road noise and the sussuration of wind through the trees.

It’s not quite tranquil. But you can sense that tranquility used to exist here, and may some day return. That’s a conversation I’d like to join.

i have a crush on stephen fry

If I was gay (or if I were gay and interested in the past subjunctive—which I’m not and which I’m not) I’d be in love with Stephen Fry. I’m about half in love with him anyway. Because he has one of the most delicious voices in this part of the galaxy, and he knows how to use it, and he uses it to say things that ought to be said, and he uses it to say things that ought not to be said but need saying anyway.

And because of this:

I confess, I’m one of those people who sometimes get annoyed at the verbing of nouns. In my defense, I’m only really annoyed when I see it used in corporate jargon. There’s a place for CorporateSpeak. For the most part, that place is Hell (which is where the guy who sent out a memo saying ‘Please gist your reports before sending them to me’ belongs). But the employee who first said she couldn’t go out to lunch because she was ‘dining al desko’ has a special place in heaven.

I can hear that—I shall be dining al desko today—in Stephen Fry’s voice. He makes it sound even better.

(Thanks to Olga van Saane for bringing that video to my attention)

lost in the noise

At some point in the next 24-72 hours Dog on Fire will be for sale as an e-book through Barnes & Noble and At least that’s the plan.

I’ve published a bit in the analog world; a novel, a few non-fiction books, several short stories. I’ve been included in a few anthologies (including Otto Penzler’s Best American Mystery Stories 1999 and Alfred Hitchcock’s 50th anniversary anthology). I’ve ghosted a number of books for other people. I’ve put out a buttload of words in actual print. But this is the first thing I’ve done specifically for e-publication. (To be accurate, some of the stories in Dog on Fire have already appeared in print, but the stories presented as a collection is something new.)

I think of this as indie publishing. A lot of other folks think of it as self-publishing—which is generally seen as a sort of lower species of publishing. What’s odd is that many of those same folks regard independent cinema as very cool, and they see indie music releases as bold and ballsy. But putting your own writing out there seems to spark a bit of skepticism. There’s that silent but underlying question “What…you can’t get a real publisher to release your work?”

My initial response to this is “Yes, I can, but fuck you very much.”

I have to admit, there’s basis in reality for that skepticism. Technology has made it possible for a LOT of people who couldn’t get published in a traditional venue (and let’s face it, people whose work doesn’t really merit broad publication) to bang out something and put it up for sale on B& and And a lot of ‘real’ writers will complain—with some justification—that the amount of noise emitted by those folks makes it more difficult for their own work to find an audience.

My initial response to them is “Yes, you’re right, but also fuck you very much.

The democratization of publishing is a good thing, even if it makes it harder for the rest of us to earn a buck. Some people will claim good work will always find an audience—which is completely delusional. A lot of good work will get lost in the noise. The odds are that’ll happen to Dog on Fire too. It’s just the reality of the situation.

And then there are the folks who say something like “But you’re not really doing this for the money anyway.” Want to guess what my initial response is? “I am most certainly doing this for the money, and fuck you very much.” If I sell a short story, I get paid once. If that story gets anthologized, I get paid again. And that’s it. With an ebook collection of short stories, I get paid every time somebody buys it. I get paid less, of course, but the idea is that volume will make up for it. If the ebook gets lost in the noise, that may not work out. But if that happens, the fault doesn’t lie with the noise.

So I consider this something of an experiment. Experiments sometimes fail. Often fail. If this one fails—well, what the hell, I’ll probably try it again. I may be in this for the money, but if money were the primary consideration I’d have a straight job.

loss of control

Nobody warned me.

I can’t believe it…but nobody said a damned thing to me about the danger of typography addiction. There I was, innocently trying to create a cover design for an e-book. A babe in the woods, that’s what I was. A babe in the fucking woods. “Go download some fonts,” they said. “Try a little League Gothic. Have a taste of some Trajan. Go ahead, it’ll be okay.”

Do you know how many typefaces are out there? More than Carl Sagan could count. Do you know how many of them I downloaded? ALL OF THEM. I don’t know serif from Shinola, but I’ve probably got a typeface by that name. Right now I seem to be drawn to something called Astonished. Why? I have no fucking clue. I think because it looks like it was designed by somebody trying to scratch his way out of an abandoned refrigerator.

I’m exaggerating slightly. In truth, I’ve always been attracted by the idea of typography. I like the theory behind it. I’ve just never had to deal with the reality of it  I suspect that after a few days I’ll develop some sense of discretion, of aesthetic discernment, some sideways control over my indiscriminate font-bingeing.

But right now, I’m just another sailor on shore leave, looking for a gypsy good time.

fog, cats, dogs, walnuts

By chance, I heard the weather forecast last night. ‘Fog advisories for the morning; commuters should be alert.’ So I set my alarm for six o’clock ante meridiem—telling myself I’d go to bed early, which of course I failed to do. So there’s me at 6am, looking out the window and not seeing a bit of fog through the dark. Nothing. So I booted up my computer, went to work, and didn’t look out the window again until around eight o’clock.

And we had fog.

I’d completely failed to consider the mechanics of fog production. By 8:15 I was on my bicycle, by 8:30 I was on the bike path that ran along the creek.

It was a chilly ride, and wet. The fog wasn’t particularly thick, but it made the world all clammy and dark and weird and sometimes a wee bit dangerous. Occasionally it was more like a mist than fog. I stopped under one of the bridges to tie my hair back.

When I stopped, I surprised a feral cat with three kittens. The cat and two of the kittens scampered off up the creek bank; one of the kittens panicked and ran the other way—toward the creek. The creek was running low so the kitten wasn’t in any real danger, but it mewed and cried and was obviously frightened at being separated from the others. So I played border collie for about ten minutes, and eventually succeeded in herding the little bugger back across the bike path and up the bank where the others were.

Did I take a photo of the cat and kittens? Sadly, no. I didn’t take the camera out of the bike bag until after I’d dealt with the kitten. By the time I got the camera out, the thoughtless little bastards had scurried away. Still, it was pleasant under the bridge.

I had much better luck farther down the trail, when I came across Wrigley. I’ve met this dog and his human companion three or four times in the last couple of months. He owns property in the area; Wrigley owns him. He’s a classic golden retriever—smart, friendly, a wee bit loopy, eager to please. And I was reminded why you never want to wear black around a golden; after a few minutes of petting and hugging Wrigley had left about thirty-six pounds of dog hair on my clothes.

I mentioned earlier that the fog made the world a wee bit dangerous—and so it did, for two reasons. First, all those wet leaves were surprisingly slick; if you took a corner at speed, they’d slide out from under the tires. But the bigger danger came from the fact that the bike path wends its way through groves of walnut trees. Walnut trees drop walnuts. And they drop walnut leaves to hide the walnuts.

So concealed beneath all those lovely leaves are these handball-sized organic land mines waiting for some unsuspecting cyclist to plow into them. And it’s almost impossible not to smack into a few on a long ride. When you use toe cages on your pedals (like I do) finding a walnut with your front tire can get pretty exciting.

Even though wet leaves and walnuts are a massive pain in the cyclist’s ass, I have to admit I like them. First, they’re pretty—and pretty goes a long way. Second, they discourage those folks who ride for exercise from using that particular path. I’ve got nothing against riding for exercise, but so many of the people who do that seem to think those of us who ride for the enjoyment of it are just in the way. We’re taking up valuable bike space that could be more effectively utilized for cardiovascular improvement. Or something like that.

In a couple of weeks the wind will blow most of those leaves away. In a couple of weeks the squirrels will have gathered most of the walnuts. And the exercise crew will be back. And that’s okay too. At least they’re out riding. They’ll just have to get used to me stopping at irregular intervals in the bike path to take photographs and herd kittens.

The fog has burned off now. It’s sunny outside—beautiful blue sky, mid-70s, very light breeze. I’ve got an afternoon of editing in front of me. Editing and noodling around with book cover designs. Even though I wasn’t on the bicycle for exercise this morning, I can feel the ride in my legs. It’s a pretty good feeling.

If I was a golden retriever, I’d turn around three times, lay down, and take a nap.

poor bastard

The beauty of traditional publishing is that all the writer has to do is write. That’s it. You make shit up and write it down. You finish the manuscript, you take it to the Post Office or Federal Express, you drop it in an envelope, send the damned thing off and that’s it. You can forget about it and move on to the next project. Easy peasy, as they say.

Some other poor bastard (or several poor bastards) will have to do the grunt work of copy editing, and considering issues of typeface, and dealing with formatting, and coming up with cover art.

But e-publishing makes every writer a poor bastard—at least in the sense of all the grunt work that’s necessary to prepare the manuscript for publication. Copy editing? You have to do it. Typeface and formatting? Figure it out. Cover art? Dude, it’s all up to you. You can stare at your computer and say “Dammit, Jim—I’m a doctor, not an engineer.” But you still have to get the warp engines back on line.

I’m okay with the copy editing. I hate it, but I can do it. I don’t know dick about typeface, but I can see that there are certain industry standards and follow those. I can cope with the formatting because the e-publishing software makes it a bit easier. But cover art? Dammit, Jim—I’m a writer, not a graphic designer.

Graphic designers never get the credit they deserve. I’ve known this for a long time—partly because graphic designers keep telling me it’s so, and partly because I’ve seen graphic designers make almost unnoticeable changes that somehow magically turns a dull design into one that seizes and holds the eye and the imagination. So I’ve known graphic designers have their own peculiar genius, but now that I’ve tried to build a book cover, I appreciate it all the more.

I tried to take a lot of things into account. The cover is for a book of non-traditional detective stories, so I wanted the cover to have a light noir-ish vibe—somewhat urban, but not quite hard-boiled. I wanted it to relate to something that appears in the stories—a setting, an object, an atmosphere. I wanted the cover to be clean and simple and somewhat austere.

I guess I’ve made maybe a couple dozen different covers now. They all look too simplistic to me. They look like—well, they look like I made them. They don’t look to me like real book covers. I spent an inordinate amount of time looking at e-book covers on and B&, and I’ve got myself so turned around at this point that they don’t look like real book covers either.

I suspect I’ll settle for one of these four covers. Years ago I learned to be able to let go of a manuscript; now I have to learn to do the same with a book cover.

But this shit ain’t easy.

river of monks

The Sauk and Meskwaki tribes called this Ke-oh-shaw-kwa, the river of hermits. They’d been driven out of their native lands in Michigan and Ontario by French explorers, missionaries and settlers. They settled here, not far from a bend in the river where they’d encountered a man living alone in a hut—a person living outside the safety of a community was an unusual sight in those days.

The French, who eventually followed along, came to call this La Rivière des Moines—the River of Monks.The monks in question were from the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, more commonly known as ‘Trappists’ (the nickname derives from the abbey at Soligny-la-Trappe in Normandy). They’d established an outpost a couple hundred miles downriver—little more than a few huts, a trading post, and a chapel built on what they believed to be a massive native burial mound. The Trappists worked the ground, made beer, tried to convert the natives, and after about 20 years, were forced to abandon their settlement on the mounds by hostile tribes.

You have to appreciate the poetic justice. But even though the French left, the name La Rivière des Moines remained.

That’s the accepted version of events. Like so many accepted versions of history, there’s doubt about its accuracy. Before everybody agreed to call it La Rivière des Moines, it was known by some French explorers as La Rivière des Moingona. The term ‘moingona’ is usually translated as meaning ‘mound,’ thereby making this the ‘River of the Mounds.’ Given that there were monks living on mounds, it’s easy to see how confusion could ensue. River of Monks, River of Mounds—both names make sense.

But there’s more. One of the first people to call the river by its European name was the French Jesuit missionary and explorer Jacques Marquette. He’d encountered natives of the Peoria tribe at the confluence of this river and the Mississippi. Asking about other tribes who inhabited the river basin, the local natives told Marquette this branch of the river was controlled by Mooyiinkweena. Marquette interpreted that as a local variation on ‘moingona.’ According to one linguist, however, mooyiinkweena actually meant ‘shit-face.’ The local tribe members had apparently been insulting their neighbors.

So, what’s the truth? The truth is this river is now known as the Des Moines River. It may be the river of monks, it may be the river of mounds, it may be the river of shit-faces, or it may be the river of shit-faced monks living on mounds. After three centuries, does it matter?

I’m inclined to think not.