Massive Productivity as a form of Procrastination? Indeed.

Well, there’s nothing like the difficulty of doing something that scares me a little (like writing a short story) to inspire me to get other work done.

In the last two days I’ve written roughly 7,500 words and completely planned out the plot for Red Lands Book 3 (Red Lands Book 2, City of the Dead, is currently with the trusted first reader getting checked over).  I wrote a lot of dialogue (as I tend to do when I’m outlining), and planned out several specific scenes.

Now, granted, I had been thinking about Book 3 for a long time, but I’m glad to finally have a solid grip on it.  My problems in writing Book 2 (City of the Dead) all came out of trying to make it something the series isn’t.  I wrote too many “character interaction” scenes that didn’t have sufficient personal conflict to keep the “fist of broken nails” pace and feel of Book 1 (Toward Darkness).  Once I finally figured that out, I was able to fix it. I don’t think that will be a danger in Book 3 (which I haven’t named yet).

But, to adapt a phrase from Bruce Cockburn, “I was writin’ this stuff to keep from writin’ something else,” namely, the short story challenge I set myself up on.  I don’t know why I’m so nervous about writing short stories, but I am.  But hey, if 3600+word days are the result of my procrastination, I’ll take it.

So, have you ever had that situation, where dodging something unpleasant led, not to laziness and stagnation, but massive productivity?  Is it even worth pushing through to write the short story, or should I just milk it for every massive word-count day I can get?

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In Comes Romeo, he’s moaning…

(Bonus points if you get the reference in the title.  If not, click here).

I think by now we all know I’m a Shakespeare fan – I’m not a true Shakespeare nerd, because I haven’t read and seen them all, but I am a fan.  And one of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Romeo & Juliet … at least in theory.

I say “at least in theory” because I have so rarely seen a performance of the play that even came close to doing it justice.  Romeo & Juliet isn’t a Harlequin Romance Novel or Disney Princess Movie that incongruously ends with everyone dead.  It’s a tragedy, and a far more brutal tragedy than MacBeth or Hamlet, because the violence doesn’t just kill people, it kills love and hope.  It ends, not with a sword fight, but with a suicide.  It consumes the city of Verona with a hatred so deep it becomes unconscious and dehumanizing.

The opening conversation between (Act I, Scene i) two Capulet servants is often omitted or cut to little more than an issued challenge, but it is by far the most telling and important conversation in the play.  I’ve quoted the most relevant part below.  You can find the whole script here.

SAMPSON A dog of the house of Montague moves me.

GREGORY To move is to stir; and to be valiant is to stand: therefore, if thou art moved, thou runn’st away.

SAMPSON A dog of that house shall move me to stand: I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s.

GREGORY That shows thee a weak slave; for the weakest goes to the wall.

SAMPSON True; and therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall: therefore I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids
to the wall.

GREGORY The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.

SAMPSON ‘Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the maids, and cut off their heads.

GREGORY The heads of the maids?

SAMPSON Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads; take it in what sense thou wilt.

GREGORY They must take it in sense that feel it.

SAMPSON Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and ’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

So they’re standing around talking smack about the Montagues, Gregory’s egging Sampson on by questioning his courage.  Sampson is bragging about how he will kill the Montague men and then rape and/or kill the Montague women.  “Maidenhead,” as you know, is Elizabethan-era slang for the hymen in particular and virginity in general.  This is basically two guys out on the street talking smack … glorifying the rape and murder of the Montagues.  Gregory and Sampson aren’t actually Capulets; they’re servants of the Capulets.  They barely even have any stake in this feud, but the generational feud has generated such an atmosphere of hatred that this is what they talk about when they’re not working: rape and murder.

The premise of Romeo & Juliet isn’t that love conquers all: it most assuredly does not.  The moral is that an unwillingness to forgive will destroy everything that you love, leaving nothing but guilt and grief behind, and that the cycle of hate and destruction will not end until both sides have suffered enough to learn to forgive.  Considering the 20th century’s history of ethnic cleansing and genocide, Shakespeare’s ending may have actually been overly optimistic.

It drives me straight up the wall to see this play watered down, presented like a love story, stripped of all the violence and ugliness of the vendetta.  I’ve seen the Royal Shakespearean company do this (I almost thought they’d just misprinted the programs, and I was really watching Much Ado About Nothing until the end, when everyone died), I’ve seen Hollywood do this (more than once, though I’ll admit that Gnomeo and Juliet won me over, despite it all).

The only version I’ve ever seen that captured the violence and ugliness was Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, which kept the Shakespearean script but used modern-day settings, clothes, etc.  The Sampson and Gregory dialogue was replaced by a fairly brutal, extended fight that conveyed the same information to audiences who might not know what “maidenhead” meant or get the significance of pushing people “to the wall” or “off the walls.”

A lot of people criticize this film for using modern sets and costumes, but ironically, it’s the only production of the play I have ever seen that is actually faithful to the script.

Luhrmann’s film to emphasize the feud’s engrained violence, the privilege of nobility, and the crushing atmosphere this provided, creating an atmosphere so full of hate and vengeance that love may well have been the ultimate rebellion.

So… you may be asking, what has this got to do with anything?

Well, the message of Romeo & Juliet is a powerfully moral one, one that we can all learn from: if we cannot learn to forgive, we will destroy everything we love.  But that message cannot shine out if  someone, for whatever reason, blunts the darkness and ugliness.  Without that darkness and ugliness, Romeo and Juliet’s love becomes just another love story, not a singular point of light in a violent, hateful, ugly city of darkness.  Without that darkness and ugliness, the destruction of their love seems just like a bummer, and ending that doesn’t make sense, something Shakespeare should have revised.  Or worse, their deaths seem romantic, like the end of Wuthering Heights, and the entire point is lost.

You all know I’ve been wrestling with my writing – harsh language, the darkness of the subject matter, the violence itself (especially in my Blood Oath trilogy).  And thinking about Romeo & Juliet has made me reconsider another angle.  I can’t self-censor to the point that the most important part of the story gets lost, muddled in a respectable, slightly dim haze.  If I have any light to share, I must show it as truthfully as possible, even if that means going into a dark, violent, ugly place.  And I won’t feel ashamed about it, either.

After-Action Report: Writing the First Short Story

As I’ve said, writing short stories is hard for me, and I almost broke the rules on this one – it’s about 50 words shy from being a novelette (7501-17,500 words).  The hardest thing is getting over the fear and actually getting the story written.  But now that I’ve done that, I’ve had more ideas for short stories just start flowing.

I have a few things I’m still worried about – the story is set in Tarafore a fantasy setting I’ve been toying with since childhood.  It’s the first story I’ve been able to write set in the main area of focus in Tarafore, the City-States (specifically, the City-State of Cassa).

Tarafore is defined by The Breaking, a period every 250 years, lasting about 25 years, during which time magic returns to the world, powerful Warlords rise, and kings and empires are brought low.  One thousand years ago, Tarafore emerged from the Great Breaking, and its people fear that each new breaking could be a return to 1,000 years of chaos and darkness.

During each Breaking, humans from Earth come through to Tarafore, and they are in part responsible for Tarafore’s technology (early Imperial era, more 16oo’s than 1500’s, really) and society (mostly late Renaissance).

Most of the natives of Tarafore look quite human, but are actually descendants of a handful of ancestral Beasts, and thus separate species.  However, noble families still have to intermarry their younger children in order to establish political or economic alliances.  This has led to some unusually modern views on adoption, and some very un-Renaissance views on the origins of noble superiority (which, on Tarafore, are based on education and raising, not bloodline)

I think you know I’m a Shakespeare fan.  Well, about ten years ago I had occasion to read several historical monographs about Renaissance Italy in particular and early modern Europe in general.  A lot of that made it into Tarafore, especially in the face of the City-State of Cassa.

Cassa is, as best as I can write it, like something drawn from historical Renaissance Italy, and from Shakespeare’s Italian plays (including tragedies such as Romeo & Juliet, Othello, and Titus Andronicus [which was actually Roman, but fits the mood pretty well] as well as comedies like Much Ado About Nothing).

A council of five Great Houses rule Cassa – the Merengo, led by the idealistic reformer Cruhuer (who is loved by many, but hated by more, even within his own House); the Fiorentino, led by the dissolute, decadent prodigy Giuseppe, who hates the Merengo with an almost mad passion; Crynnlynn, secretive, calm, always scheming; Peccavi, who once were mercenaries and have now become a family of priests, though they have gone from penitents to princes of the church; and Kamitaas, once a tribe of warriors, now the strong arm that keeps order, sister-house and ally to Peccavi.

The alliance between the Kamitaas and Peccavi provides a great deal of stability, standing in the path of both bloody chaos and needed reform.  Meanwhile, the houses fight their cold wars, executing their vendettas in secret.

Frankly, it’s a perfect place to play against my violent imagination.  Dueling, vendetta and assassination are always at hand, but the close family ties means nobody goes unmourned, and that every act of violence likely begets more and more violence.

“Peace?  I Hate the Word” is the story of one short outburst of violence, and the cost it extracts from House Merengo.

It wasn’t easy to write.  Though I believe I have succeeded in making each character’s voice sound unique, I worry that the dialogue is a little too “Shakespearean” for something written in 2012 (there’s a fine line between period-appropriate and stiffly pretentious).

And I’m not entirely sure I’m really through with it.  I think there may be enough there to turn it into a novella, by expanding upon the motivations and plans of the various characters and factions involved.

Not only that, but now that the floodgates are open, I can tell you with full confidence that I’ll be writing more short stories set in Cassa.  I’ve already got one outlined.

Accomplishment Unlocked: First … Story … COMPLETED!!

Whew!

I just finished the first short story of my short story challenge.  I had hoped to finish it on Friday, so I could spend the weekend pondering the next story, but life intervened.  I worked on it steadily (except Sunday), but I wasn’t able to finish it until today.

And I wasn’t at all sure I was going to be able to finish it today (life intervenes a lot, doesn’t it?).

I want to run it by my first reader and make sure I didn’t do anything stupid, then I’m going to post it here for a short period of time before putting it up on Kindle and Smashwords (I’ll leave a sample up permanently).

It was hard, but I managed to make progress on all the issues I wanted to work on (the whole reason I started this challenge in the first place):

  • distinctive character voice
  • proactive protagonists
  • stories with a clear premise
  • dealing with the violent imagination

So needless to say, I feel REALLY happy about this one.  It’s pretty long, at just under 7200 words (if it had been 7501 words, it wouldn’t even have been a short story anymore, but a novelette).

The Violent Imagination

I’ve been listening to “What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding”  and thinking about the title “What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”  And it’s made me mad.  It’s made me sad.  Worse still, it’s made me preachy.  I wrote a 300-ish word post called “What’s so Funny?”, which I might haul out sometime if I need an example of what not to do.

Ultimately, this is one more stage in the transformation of my imagination.  Like most American kids, I was raised on a diet of sanitized violence, the heroism of the fist.  And to a large degree I love those stories, still, stories where a single death is treated as a tragedy, not a footnote or statistic.

Honestly, the violent imagination problem isn’t about loving Superman or Optimus Prime, any more than the materialistic consumer problem comes from believing in Santa Claus.  It’s what happens when the story grows up without really maturing.  Regarding materialism, the problem comes when the wide-eyed wonder of Christmas morning becomes, not the wide-eyed joy of giving, but the short-lived “hit” of buying new stuff (if television is the opiate of the masses, consumerism is its crack cocaine).

The violent imagination problem comes when we leave Superman behind for The Authority, or The Punisher, or Dirty Harry, or The Bride from Kill Bill.  Or Hamlet, for that matter.  We are taught, by media both vulgar and elevated, that things will get better if the good guys kill the right people.  We’re taught this by our government.  We’re taught this by our news media.  We teach and learn this from each other.  Our civil religion teaches us this is so, echoing the sentiment from ten thousand pulpits.

The message is so ingrained in our culture that it’s nigh-impossible to avoid it, and it even feels a little bit like treason to try.

But that doesn’t change the truth.  The world will NOT get better just because we kill the right people.

I’m not a pacifist.  Maybe I will be one day, but I’m not right now.  I believe that sometimes, fighting is necessary, and when necessary, it is right, even if our past behavior set the wheels in motion.  On September 12, 2001, we couldn’t go back in time and undo all the times our foreign policy screwed over the people of the Middle East, pushing them into the arms of murderous radicals.  Those sins were committed, relics of an abominable Cold War strategy that said, effectively, “we’ll support any anti-communist, no matter how cruel, despotic, or dysfunctional he is.”

Likewise, in 1942, we couldn’t undo the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I and saddled Germany with oppressive, punitive reparation payments it could not pay, leaving the German people demoralized, impoverished, and ripe for a demagogue’s pickings (I know the U.S. never even signed the Treaty of Versailles, but President Wilson could have worked a lot harder to stop it, perhaps by making U.S. rebuilding aid to England and France contingent upon a fair peace treaty with Germany).

And so we fight, because we have to.  But this is not glorious, and it is not bloodless.  Whether Dresden or Afghanistan, even our necessary wars still leave thousands of dead civilians in their wake.

But we never seem to learn.  We never learn to be peacemakers, to stop laying the seeds for the next brutal conflict in the resolution of this one.  We never learn that we are a giant in a playground, and that we cannot behave like (for example) France, because we are not on their scale, and our actions have far more devastating consequences than theirs.

But we’ve been taught since childhood that we are the good guys, and so it follows that whatever we do is good.  We measure the body count of our wars in American dead, as if brown foreigners don’t count.  But it’s not because of racism, not really; it’s because we’ve been taught to divide up good and bad, and glory in the bad guys’ deaths.

 

And it is maddeningly hard to shake this.

And even more maddening to do it in a way that doesn’t disrespect the sacrifices our soldiers have made to protect us.  Their most sheltered supply clerk has sacrificed more for America than I have: enduring boot camp, moving to wherever the army tells him or her to go, sacrificing, at least while he or she is within the army, the right to free speech and expression.

Heck, with an easily-acquired (for those without criminal records) permit, I can carry a firearm a huge number of places, including my home.  Soldiers who live on base don’t get to do that; they don’t even get to have guns in their homes.  They can still worship freely, but they’ve pretty much sacrificed the rest of their Bill of Rights protections in order to serve.

Many servicemen and women have given far more: years away from family, their babies’ first steps, arms, legs, marriages, lives, traumatic brain injuries that steal their intellect and even personalities.  Even those who escape the combat zone apparently unscathed often have nightmares that linger for years.  I never want to minimize that, or pretend I know what it’s like.

But that doesn’t change the truth.  I can’t cheer anyone’s death, not any more.  And I can’t write in such a way that my writing cheers anyone’s death.  So where does that leave me?

I’m not a pacifist.  Sometimes terrible forces must be met with force.  Saying “everything would be better if everyone was a pacifist” doesn’t really help.  The question is, will we unilaterally be pacifists, or will we not?

And the answer is, we’re suicidal to just unilaterally become pacifists in the face of Hitler, Mao, Stalin, even Bin Laden.  Passive resistance works against fundamentally decent people (like the British in India or Americans during segregation) who are committing an atrocity, because once they are convinced they are committing an atrocity, their decency will force them to put an end to it.  It doesn’t work against a totalitarian war machine that is already in process of killing tens of millions.  Its record isn’t even that good against small-potatoes Third World dictatorships, though it does, at least, have a chance there.

But if pacifism is too far to go, we can be peacemakers, reserving violence only for the last resort, and actively working to de-escalate situations that can lead to violence.

This is the responsibility of everyone who legally carries a concealed handgun: to de-escalate situations, to let the other guy have the last word, to even let yourself be spat upon, because you know you are carrying death in your pocket, and you cannot unleash death unless death is already threatened  (I’ll leave off any comments on the Travyon Martin case, and simply say that all parties need our prayers.  I will say that Mr. Zimmerman should voluntarily surrender his permit to carry a weapon, even if he is not guilty of murder.  Following someone around and confronting them is a violation of the peacemaker mentality required to responsibly carry).

So, once more, where does this leave me as a writer?  I mean, I like writing action scenes.  But I can’t glorify killing.  And I’m not sure I can, with a clean conscience, write the kind of chivalrous, bloodless violence that Superman, the Lone Ranger, and their comrades practice.  That doesn’t really exist in the real world.

So what do I do?

Right now, I’m writing a lot of unhappy endings, or rather, pyrrhic victories and bittersweet endings.  That can’t really last forever.  I like happy endings, and I want to figure out how to get there from here.  I can think of two roads forward: unlocking my nonviolent imagination by learning more about creative nonviolent resistance, and learning to write creative nonviolent resistance; and really thinking about the good take-away messages of childhood heroes.

Much as Santa Claus can teach the joy of giving, the message of many of the best stories about the childhood heroes is that of self-sacrifice, of bravery, of putting others ahead of oneself.  Every time Superman steps in front of a missile (which could, perhaps, hurt him), we see a four-color version of our own better natures.  The fistfight with the guy who shot the missile is far less important than the act of stepping in front of it.  Time and time again one of these cartoony characters steps into a doorway to hold that point against an army, so a group of innocents can escape.  Of course they escape, most of the time.  Sometimes they don’t, though the authors always seem to bring them back.

Sometimes, the bloodless violence fistfight types (Superman for example, or even Batman [spoilers],  etc.) can serve as counter-arguments against those who say that the ends justifies the means, that wiping out the bad guys is the right move, that the ends justifies the means.  But I still don’t think I can write that kind of sanitized faux-violence, not having seen what real-world violence is.

So what do I do?  This is part of what the short story challenge is all about, even more so than character voice, unified premise, or proactive protagonists.  It’s about figuring out what a hero is, and learning how to write it.

No wonder I’m nervous.

The Short Story Challenge: Why Does it Have to Be So Challenging???

I’m doing this instead of actually working on this week’s short story.  Yup.

Why?  It’s scary.  Short stories are all the hard parts (the getting started parts, the planning out parts), all the time.  Plus, I have to watch my length, leave out things that I’d like to explore, all because of space.

And since I’m working on premise and character voice especially, I’m having to work much harder in my writing than usual.  I have to be more mindful of my text, especially dialogue, which I usually like to just let “flow” at high speed, writing the whole conversation very quickly.  The only problem is, that tends to produce fairly generic-ized conversation that doesn’t strictly keep to the characters’ voices.  That’s tough, at least for me.

Also, I’m not accustomed to starting with a premise, and making sure the fiction sticks to it.  I’m used to coming up with ideas, characters, settings, some kind of inspiration, running with it, writing some scenes, then figuring out a plot around them.  I’m not entirely convinced that this is a bad method, nor that I need to abandon it altogether.

However, much like profanity, I’m “giving it up for Lent” regarding this short story challenge.  I’m doing things a different way to learn how to be the master of the fiction I write (if that makes sense), to prove to myself that my prior methods aren’t just laziness or weakness.

So, the desire to make myself a better writer, to prove myself to myself, is driving me on, and fear of failure (and, honestly, of the difficult, possibly painful work ahead) is holding me back, pushing me to find excuses not to write these stories.  Heh, story of my life.  Okay: break’s over …
 

On Mutuality, Relationships, and Writing

Rachel Held Evans is hosting a weeklong discussion about mutuality, also known as equality in relationships (specifically marriage).  I’m not writing a relationships blog (or a religious one), but I felt like it would be worth my time to talk about some of the same issues, and how they relate to us as writers (or at least to me as a writer).

Clearly, issues of privilege and patriarchy still affect American and European society in profound ways, even in the 21st century (my focus is on American society, not out of regionalism, but simply because I don’t know European society well enough to go around commenting about its gender relations).  As a writer, I am both affected by and have some small power to affect my cultural surroundings.  These issues affect my writing in profound ways, largely by determining the presuppositional foundation from which I perceive the world.  However, if I take control of my writing, it can impact others, and in some small way push back against the ugly parts of modern society, and help (again, in its small way) influence the culture of those who read it.

Sexism is by no means the exclusive province of the religious, as anyone who has taken even a casual glance at the vast wasteland of misogyny and mediocrity available on the Internet knows.  But few Memebase “go make me a sandwich” trolls construct self-coherent philosophical frameworks defending their sexist views and calling out those who disagree.  It seems the urge to create systematic theological constructs is easily turned toward the justification of male dominance.  Within Christianity, that framework generally goes by the (misleading) name “complementarianism,” a name that, as complementarian author Owen Strachan notes, really means “patriarchy” (pg 25).

Complementarianism is a theological construct that effectively reduces women’s value to their ability to nurture, to take care of their husbands’ needs, their childrens’ needs, etc.  It discourages women from having careers or personal goals that do not revolve around family, and it practically forbids them from taking leadership positions in the church.  This is hardly a universal feature of the church, and has largely arisen as a reaction against post-modernity, as part of a surprisingly widespread desire to return to an idealized version of the 1950’s, before all the -isms of the 1960’s “ruined everything.”

Of course, most of the people proclaiming this were not even born in the 1950’s.  I wasn’t either, so I can’t speak to how things really were, but I can’t help but think of Emmett Till, the Korean War, Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunts, and a host of other things that never touched June and Ward Cleaver’s monochromatic subdivision.  The 1950’s were a great place if you were a conventional straight white male with a job, I suppose, but the minute you shrugged off your gray flannel suit, you courted disaster.

Others have provided reasoned, Biblical defenses of egalitarianism, and that’s good.  My reaction is a combination of exasperation, amused surprise, and disgust:  people still believe this?  We’re really having to have this conversation in 2012?  People think women are only gifted with in-the-home talents?  That’s an awfully small box to put God into, to say nothing of the box women are being put into.

Defending sexism based on a few verses in the pastoral epistles is like using the book of Philemon to defend slavery.  The ancient church-leaders lived in a sexist, slave-owning, violent, oppressive empire and they wrote these letters to specific churches at that time, so they could best live out their faith, and best express Christ’s love, within that sexist, slave-owning, violent, oppressive empire.

A wife’s submission to her husband may have been necessary in an utterly sexist, violent, slave-owning society in which women were not allowed to work and marriages were property contracts between the wife’s father and the husband to be, just as the slave’s submission to his master may be necessary in such a flawed and brutal society, but do we really think that’s some kind of ideal that should persist?

Honestly, this whole barrage of faux-‘50’s nostalgia feels like an alien invasion to me.  But I can see how it shapes my own viewpoint, even as I rage against it.  The man as head of the household goes hand-in-hand with the objectification of women.  Sure, the web-trolls objectify women as sex objects, and this “kinder, gentler” patriarchy objectifies them as nurturers, but neither allows full humanity.

So, having read this far, how does this relate to writing?

The short answer is, the culture I’m swimming in can’t help but affect my portrayal of women, which then further reinforces that cultural status quo.  I have to consciously, intentionally, question my own presuppositions and carefully create female characters who are not objectified: not as nurturing ur-mothers (though they can be nurturing mothers), not as objects of sexual desire (though they can be sexual, and can be desired), not as wicked, manipulative succubi (though they can be villainous), not as hard-edged “tougher than the men” viragos (though they can be as tough, or tougher, than the men).  There are so many shallow archetypes, so many ways lingering patriarchy and privilege try to worm their way into every story.  Thankfully, my keyboard has a backspace key.

The long answer is “Stay tuned: I’ll be talking about this in the days to come.”

Over the next few days, I’ll be looking at:

  • Writing relationships as opposed to romances
  • Examples of egalitarian relationships in fiction (please leave me some examples in the comments: I’m finding they’re not easy to find!)
  • Getting a little personal, I’ll talk a bit about how my wife and I work things out in our relationship (almost 9 years!)
  • And I”ll talk about writing people different from myself, outside the white male heterosexual privilege that I’ve grown up in, the difficulties that arise, and my attempts to overcome them.

Hopefully, I’ll have something to say worth hearing.

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