Two Rules I Follow (and One I Should) When Writing

Whenever I do manage to write regularly, there are some self-imposed rules I try to follow, and then others that I don’t.  Then there are others still that I discover along the way, even if I’ve known of them previously.

Firstly, I’ve tried to follow the 500 words per day dictum, and have been met with only modest success.  It’s not that I can’t physically write 500 words a day, but doing so, day in and day out, really wears me down after a while.  I would guess it’s the whole “quota” aspect of it.  Lately, I’ve tried sticking to about 500 words a day on average, but have focused more on the time I’m putting in as opposed to a word count.  Saying that I devote, say, about 20-30 minutes a day to writing new stuff gives me the time needed to continue writing, but without having to check a word count tool every few minutes for whether or not I’ve gotten to some kind of established finish line.

Secondly, there’s the dictum about writing what you know.  This is one of those rules I patently DON’T follow.  I have never understood nor particularly agreed with this concept, as there would be no science fiction or fantasy without it, for one.  For another, my life as it is is pretty mundane.  That’s not a complaint, it’s just the truth.  I work, I come home, I hang out with my friends and loved ones, and I play a lot of video games whenever I’m not writing.  I have no problem incorporating some of these elements into my fiction, but it’s not like I’ve ever been a monster slayer, or had spider-powers (much as I might wish for them).  Hell, I’ve only ever fired a gun a couple of times, but I don’t feel like I know now how the mind of a sharpshooter or an international assassin works.

So, I tend to wing it.

I can do research and interview people to back up what I write, but otherwise, I’m very much just playing things by ear.  Because otherwise, my stories simply won’t get written.

Finally, there’s the rule I haven’t followed much, but probably should.

Often, when I come to write, I’m an emotional blank slate.  I can sometimes induce feelings in the course of writing, and sometimes it feels like I’m just trying to fill space, or entertain myself.  Other times, rarer times, I come to the desk with an overriding emotion in place: anger, sadness, joy, curiosity, and so on.  And when I set those feelings into my fingertips and onto the keyboard–man, what comes out is often so cathartic.

I need to do this more often.  I need to develop a habitual trigger that brings me to the keyboard whenever I’m in a state of high emotions, because even though it’s often frightening to put to words whatever I may be feeling, it also makes for easier (and I would argue better) writing in general.  When I let the feelings out through my stories, they feel a lot more genuine, more connected to me personally, and they also just tend to flow from me a lot quicker.

I think if I can just let fly some of those emotions onto the paper of my choice, I can do a better job of meeting the first rule (500 words a day, 20-30 minutes a day) and flouting the second (write only what you know).

Just some thoughts.

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Hello, From Behind

Last year, while I was writing a two-sentence horror story for every day of the month in October, I put to publication one particular experience that I denoted as being completely NOT a work of fiction.  It was the closest to an actual paranormal experience as I’ve ever had in my admittedly dull and at  times dreary life, and it’s something I’ve never forgotten.  I wanted to expand on that experience a little, and tell it in a narrative fashion that allows me more detail than the quickie I wrote a year ago.

I had been home from college for the summer, and between school years worked a job as a host at a family restaurant.  This establishment typically never closed, which meant I often ended up working the night shift.  Being a natural night-owl, I had no problem with this, and often ended up working from 9 or 10 in the evening until 4 or 5 in the morning.

I had just gotten off my shift one night, at about 4 a.m.  I did my typical check of the back seats of the car before getting in–not that the parking lot wasn’t well lit enough, but I’d read enough scary stories books about assailants hiding in people’s back seats that I figured it wasn’t a bad idea to check, just in case.  I think by that point I’d also seen the movie Child’s Play, and I seem to remember Chuckie murdering one of his victims by stowing away in the back seat of his car and stabbing him through the chair.

So, yeah.  No big deal.

I start the car, and pull out of the parking lot and onto the highway.  The restaurant I worked at was nearly at the intersection of two busy state highways, so I usually got on one to turn onto the other.  It’s a fairly simple, but large turn, as there are a lot of lanes on both roads.

It was as I was making this big turn that I heard a clear, friendly baritone voice speak, its two words sending ice down my stomach.

“What’s up?”

As the fear shot immediately through me, I flicked my eyes towards my rear view mirror, searching frantically for the source of the utterance.  Otherwise, I didn’t move a muscle, aside from what I needed to do to complete the turn.  When I saw no one there, I had a brief, panicked thought: was Chuckie about to stab me through the driver’s seat?  Was there someone so small in the back seat of my car that I had missed them when I checked?

All of this occurred in the flash of an instant.  As I completed the turn onto the next highway, I found the only reply I felt I could make in this situation, and turned in what I hoped was a casual motion and responded, “Not much, how are–”

That was all I got out before I was able to get a firsthand view of my back seat.  No one was there.  There was also no small person or thing hugging the back of my seat, either.  I was alone, and as best I could tell, I was safe.

I finished the drive home without incident, but I didn’t end up going to sleep until much later in the morning.

I am not, to my knowledge, given to hallucinations of any kind.  It might be easy to say that I was just tired, and that my senses were shot, but I’m both a natural night person and was used to doing my duties at the restaurant.  I didn’t have the radio on before the encounter, so it couldn’t have been that either.

The only explanation I have, that makes any  sense to me, is that I got a very, very brief visit from a ghost on the highway, who either vanished before I could get a look at him, or who just spoke briefly to me that one time, as if in passing.

October Is Upon Us

In a few hours October will come, promising a month of chills, scares, and shorter days.  It’s a time when things really seem to relax for me, and as my favorite festive holiday comes on the final day of the month, my brain turns inevitably to horror.  Scary stories, scary movies, and scary video games, as well as what creations I can contribute in that vein.

Last year, I managed to write a two-sentence horror story every day of the month, and while I feel that was pretty successful, it’s an activity I don’t feel inclined to repeat this year.  I still want to write, and I want to do something in the scary stories department, so I think I’m going to try something a little different.

Lately, I’ve been pondering my own “creepy clown in the woods” story.  Yes, no doubt due to the influence of It, but also because clowns have always fascinated and frightened me.  This year, I think I may dedicate October to this story, and I have a number of exercises I’d like to try out as I develop it, first into a one-page story, and hopefully into a more fully realized short story.

Since I’m not exactly sure which exercises I’ll be doing, or when, I don’t have a real schedule to share with you.  But you can bet I’ll be covering the basics: the title, the characters, the plot and setting.  Hopefully by the month’s end I’ll have the full short story finished, and can share it with those of you who would like to read it.

I’ll post updates as able.  Until then, enjoy the month of October 2017.  I certainly plan to.

Angel‘s “The House Always Wins” and Pissing It All Away

Angel, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as so many other good shows throughout television history, still occasionally suffered from the odd episode that was clearly filler and failed to really connect with fans.  “The House Always Wins,” the third episode of season 4, was one such installment, but it has one particular plot device that still speaks to me today, which I feel somewhat redeems what is generally regarded as an uneven, bland episode.

The Spin-and-Win, a gambling wheel rigged by the episode’s villain, the casino owner Lee DeMarco, is only accessible by guests chosen by the casino.  DeMarco uses Lorne’s ability to read people’s auras and see their futures, and with this information, chooses the ones with the most profitable destinies.  They are given a special gambling chip to play the Spin-and-Win, with a million-dollar prize as the lure.  When his mark takes the chip, it is imprinted with that person’s future destiny, and when they inevitably lose, they are left virtually mindless, their destiny taken away along with their ambition, and they spend the rest of their lives in a dull haze, listlessly spinning away quarters in the casino’s slot machine.

Most fans feel this is a pretty heavy handed attempt to equate gambling with throwing away one’s future, and while that’s not a completely off-kilter supposition, it’s one I never really connected with gambling in spite of the context.  The Spin-and-Win, along with its devious ‘destiny chip’ component, may have existed in a casino, and been in the purview of gamblers and those who loved games of chance, but to me the symbolism went a lot deeper.  The trap that the Spin-and-Win represented could take any form, and entrap just about anyone, as long as they obsessed enough about it.

Yesterday I wrote about creation vs. consumption, and how Stephen King’s It both represented that struggle and how it’s helped inspire me to throw off (at least for now) the trappings of consumption so I can create.  The image of this thing, the Spin-and-Win, from this episode of Angel, was another of the primary motivators that came to my mind’s eye as I came to this realization.  The Spin-and-Win, in my estimation, could be anything to anyone, much like It could take on the form of anything that its victims feared.  It wasn’t just about gambling, although I suppose my vice of gaming could easily be argued to have many parallels to that pastime.

For me, the Spin-and-Win represents video games. For someone who loves food too much, the Spin-and-Win represents food.  For others, it could be sex, alcohol, television, movies, music.  More broadly, the Spin-and-Win represent excess, the overindulgence of an otherwise harmless vice that creeps into your life and steals from you.  Time, energy, devotion to otherwise creative or self-improving pursuits.  It’s an easy retreat into something that’s comforting, but otherwise and ultimately, pointless.

I admit, “The House Always Wins” is not a great episode of Angel, though I still enjoyed it just fine.  But the idea of someone throwing away their destiny because they see an easy (but rigged and unattainable) win in front of them is a powerful one that has stuck with me through the years.  It’s always been there, in the back of my thoughts, and I’ve at times wondered why that particular form of that vice stuck when there have certainly been others that may have been more apt.

Now I know why, and I’m sending up that image to pull free of my own tendency to put of creating–writing–with something easy to consume–in this case, video games.

It may not be the prettiest or most eloquent way to break free, but so far it seems to be working out well for me.

Creation vs. Consumption

Even though I’m only just now getting around to reading the novel–well, I suppose “reading” as in listening to it on audiobook–one of my favorite horror stories of all time is Stephen King’s It.  The 1990 made for television miniseries scared the hell out of me as a tween, and I loved it for it.  There was always something about Pennywise, as portrayed by Tim Curry, and more recently by Bill Skarsgard, that really succeeded in both creeping me out and eliciting a delightful sense of terror in the whole killer clown as a villainous entity.  I’d been unsettled by them before–Poltergeist jumps readily to mind–but this story really gave the trope new life in my imagination, and remains impossible to forget to this day.

I don’t know all of the lore behind It (hence the reason I’m listening to the audiobook), but I’ve certainly heard quite a bit of it, even without having read the notoriously doorstop-sized tome King wrote.  I’ve been regaled with tidbits from the more cosmically inclined pieces of lore from the story by countless enthusiasts on YouTube.  Friends who have read it have explained to me, in great levels of detail and with appropriate shock, the infamous group sex scene that has never been given life in the films.  And I’ve heard, from friends, YouTubers, and internet boards at large about how It and its characters and settings connect with the rest of King’s larger dark universe.  It’s fascinating stuff, and I plan to explore it as time and energy allow.

It’s no surprise to me that, at its heart, It is a story about consumption versus creation.  Pennywise, as the titular It, consumes the children of Derry, Maine every 27-28 years before returning to its slumber.  While It has no qualms about taking adults, It prefers children, particularly when they’re scared (the analogy of fear as a ‘sauce’ or ‘salt’ to the ‘meat’ that is the children).  It consumes, then sleeps for nearly thirty years, then returns to consume again.  Derry’s precarious prosperity seems tied to It’s existence, and even when Pennywise slumbers, It’s influence still manifests in subtle ways, which only seems noticeable to the town’s children.

Even the story’s heroes, the Losers Club, are plagued by the forces of consumption in their lives outside of Derry.  Sure, they joined together as kids to defeat It, but once they moved on they forgot each other and their shared experience.  They forgot about Derry, and It.  And though they may have made prosperous lives for themselves, none of them ever managed to have children.  The narrative suggests this is a result of It’s influence over them, even from afar, making Pennywise/It–already a consummate consumptive entity–a force that stops them from creating life of their own.

If It cannot consume the precious life you create, then you will not be allowed to create.  Pretty dark stuff.

And it’s at this point that I tie that theme into my own life, and the lives of many artists, writers, creators, and humans at large.  I learned a long time ago that, when people have free time, they basically spend it doing one of two things: creating, or consuming.  Consuming food, consuming entertainment, consuming air, water, energy, and so on.  Creation, while satisfying, is a lot harder to pull off, or at least do well: writing stories, painting, building, sculpting; hell, even cooking dinner is harder than eating it.

We rely on creators for the things we consume, and for many of us, having things to consume is all we need.  There are a ton of creators out there, of many and various things, after all.  But there are many of us who need more than to simply consume. Whether it’s a need to prove onself, or because someone has an idea or a thing they simply need to share with the world, there are creators.

For the past few months, I have not been one of them.

I’ve been caught up in the throes of consumption, and it’s not always easy to break out of them.  For me, the poison tends to be video games, which are so very entertaining, but which also aren’t exactly good for encouraging moderation in their consumption.  I haven’t written in this blog for several months, and have done little in the way of writing that wasn’t either directly related to my job, or directly related to video gaming.  I have become obsessed with having the highest score, unlocking the latest reward, or getting the latest piece of shiny equipment for my characters.

All of which, aside from the straight objective of entertainment, serves no real purpose.

I’m not saying that entertainment in and of itself is a bad thing, but when you’re putting most of your spare time into it, it becomes an obsession.  It takes you away from friends and family.  It takes you away from creating–or in my case, writing.  And ultimately, it can chip away at your soul.  Your potential for doing other, greater, things is simply sucked away.

And I’ve finally started to feel that.

I’ve known it, intellectually, for some time.  But knowing it and feeling the large swaths of time passing in idle bouts of doing essentially nothing are two separate things.  The obsessive abandon you put into consumption of a particular thing eventually wears off, and you start to realize there’s more you could be doing, if you weren’t sinking all of your time, and energy, and passion into something that wasn’t already made simply to be consumed.

I’m not saying I’m kicking my video game habit.  I’m not sure I’m strong enough for that.  But I am saying I’m aware of it enough to be apprehensive.  I’m trying to break free of it, or at the very least strike and maintain a healthy balance between my gaming and my creativity.  I’m going to try to write more, though of course I can guarantee only that right now.

Hopefully this is the start of many more successive and regular blog entries.  Hopefully I’ll be able to get a bigger chunk of my novel edited and ready for publication.  Hopefully I can find the strength to leave behind the obsessions with which I distract myself from creating.  Hopefully I can do all these things and much more.

Because hope, as Stephen King also wrote, is a good thing.  Maybe the best of things.  And while that line may not be from It, It is also ultimately about hope, and its power (along with that of friendship) to overcome darkness.

So, as I continue to listen to It, I also have hope that I will continue to write regularly, and create regularly.

Cosplays at Comicpalooza Are Always Fun

It’s amazing how people react to me when I put on a Spider-Man costume. I don’t know how many kids, teens, and adults either fist-bumped, hugged, or posed for pictures with me on Saturday at Comicpalooza, but it was a lot. I know they’re responding to the costume, and the positive associations they have with Spider-Man when they see me, and it’s always a rewarding experience.

I like to think there’s at least one part I bring to the cosplay that goes beyond just the costume, though. Striking dynamic poses and imitating Spider-Man’s mannerisms is something I’ve come to also enjoy about “being” Spider-Man. I’ve studied his movements from movies, cartoons, and video games, and do what I can to incorporate them into my disguise.

I know I’ve gotten more than a couple of good-natured giggles when I’ve crouched up on the seat of a chair, knees bent and arms gripping the front of the seat between my legs, turning my head in short, quick motions. Con-goers and fans have often reacted with surprise and admiration when I’ve crouched into a Spidey pose for a picture. I also make a point of talking in a friendly, interested manner to any little kids who notice me, something that parents always seem to appreciate.

During the con, I had one little girl, a tiny, cute little thing whom I could scarcely believe was old enough to be walking, run up to me and give me a hug. She was so far ahead of her mother that we finished the hug before the mother was able to catch up with her, so she had to hug me again in order for her mother to take the picture. When we were done, her mother was so grateful and happy that her daughter got to give her favorite superhero a hug.

Another little boy was so excited to see me, he ran to get into the picture I was taking with his older brother, yelling, “SPIDER-MAAAAAN!!” all the way until he crashed into me with a hug. It was without a doubt one of the funniest, most satisfying moments of the weekend. I high-fived both brothers afterwards, told them to enjoy the con, and wished them and their parents well as they headed off into the growing crowd.

These are the kinds of moments I live for. They’re one of the big reasons I do cosplays in the first place.

Spider-Man in particular gets a lot of love at these kinds of events, though he’s by no means the only cosplay I’ve done. Past costumes have included Nightwing, Hawkeye, the Crow, and an anonymous Jedi. I consider them all wins, as I’ve always gotten at least one compliment from an onlooker. I realize that may make my standards low, but I think as long as anyone has enjoyed the cosplay I’ve put together, then that’s all I need to know.

To say I enjoy doing cosplays would be an understatement. I look for any and every reason to put on a costume and let my nerd flag fly. Just ask any of my co-workers!

Logan Proves a Triumphant Sendoff (SPOILERS)

When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. walloped its viewers with the double whammy of the cliffhanger ending to the February 21 episode “Self Control” AND the revelation that it wouldn’t be resolved for over a month, until April 4, there were veritable howls of frustration from fans.  I immediately consoled myself with the idea that the adjoining month of March would provide me with enough fresh Marvel media content to hold me over.  Logan, which has been described as Hugh Jackman’s final performance as Wolverine, would hit theaters on March 3, and Iron Fist would drop on Netflix 2 weeks later on the 17th.

I’ve loved all of the Netflix MCU properties thus far, and I’m expecting similarly great things from Iron Fist, casting controversies aside.  But I can also say, now that I’ve finally gotten around to seeing it, that the non-MCU Logan has proven to be a noteworthy swan song for Hugh Jackman, whose portrayal of Wolverine/Logan/James Howlett has been lauded and beloved by fans and moviegoers the world over since he donned the adamantium claws in 2000’s blockbuster film X-Men.  While Fox has certainly had a hit and miss track record with its Marvel properties, there’s no doubt that Logan will be remembered as one of the biggest hits.

What follows is a SPOILER-FILLED review of Logan.  PLEASE DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER if you want to remain unspoiled for this film.

The X-Men series of films, like the comics, have never been shy about portraying the future as bleak, apocalyptic, and altogether terrible for its heroes.  What Logan does that’s both unexpected and successful with this trope is live in that future,facing down both its bleakness and the accompanying fallout, which only gets worse.  It’s a powerful slap to the viewer’s sensibilities to learn that it’s years removed from the last X-Men film, that the future is dark and foreboding, and that things are not going to be changed by a leap back in time to alter the past.  The X-Men are gone, Logan is in hiding, and mutants have all but gone extinct, with none having been born in decades.

nekttmhdhikhoo_2_bThis setup makes for a dark, gritty, and often violent story that only gets darker as the exposition continues.  An older Charles Xavier (the ever-venerable Patrick Stewart) is now prone to seizures, which cause him to psychically lash out to anyone nearby during his episodes, and Logan has to keep him both isolated and medicated, and works as a driver to try to make ends meet.  When a woman approaches him with a request for help, he is soon pulled into a chase that involves him far more intimately than he could have imagined.  Pursued by a ruthless agency, Logan and Xavier embark on a road trip that may spell the end for them, even as it delivers hope to a new generation of mutants.

One of the most gratifying, yet simultaneously saddening elements to this film is its unflinching exploration of how these characters have aged.  The film is set in 2029, which–if you count the X-Men film as being set in the year 2000–means that nearly thirty years have passed since Logan and Xavier met at the Institute.  And time has not been kind to the X-Men.  In addition to the lack of new mutants being born, and the talk of them simply being a near non-issue in this world, there are oblique references to a “Westchester incident,” which may or may not have involved Xavier.  This paints a grim picture of what may have happened to the rest of the X-Men, and though it is never directly addressed, Xavier clearly remains haunted by it, effectively leaving viewers’ imaginations to fill in the details while also making them almost too afraid to ask for the details.  It’s a big narrative risk to take, but one that pays off nicely to the story’s tone.

hugh-jackman-wolverine-logan-e1477492112271Logan has aged, in several notable ways.  He clearly looks older now, which makes sense given that Hugh Jackman himself has aged in the last 17 years.  But there’s more: his healing factor is no longer working the way it used to, and appears to be slowly failing him.  He has wounds that no longer heal, he looks older and more beaten-down, and he’s overall in a darker place.  He can’t just slash his way through a fight anymore and expect to self-patch up afterwards.  He’s playing reluctant nursemaid to Xavier, and the two have clearly had their differences during this time, even if it’s clear they still care for one another.

logan-9Of course, the most obvious way in which Logan has aged is embodied in the character of Laura (played perfectly by Dafne Keen), who anyone who’s familiar with the comics will know is X-23, a.k.a. Laura Kinney, a.k.a. a clone of Wolverine.  She looks like him, acts like him, and has his power sets and gifts, in virtually every way identical.  When it’s confirmed that she was indeed cloned–well, actually birthed in the film–using his genetic material, Logan has to deal with the fact that, like it or not, he is responsible for her–something he is clearly not eager to do.

Another strong aspect of this story is, unsurprisingly, a tragic one.  It’s obvious that Logan pushes people away out of fear that anyone he cares about dying because they happen to be around him.  This is no more perfectly portrayed than in the scene where Logan, Laura, and Xavier help out a family in the aftermath of a near-fatal highway accident.  After helping them round up the horses that got loose from the family’s trailer, they invite the mutants to their home for dinner as thanks.  They have a nice, family-style dinner with their new friends, including several moments of humor and warmth, before their pursuers catch up with them.  In the confusion and chaos that follows, every member of that family is killed, and the father clearly knows it was because they befriended Logan and his companions.

logan-trailer-2-01The importance of relationships is also a strong theme in Logan.  Logan and Xavier.  Logan and Laura.  Laura and Gabriela (Orange Is the New Black‘s Elizabeth Rodriguez), the nurse who died to get her to Logan.  Laura and Xavier.  There are genetic obligations, there are relationships that are built on the foundation of a long association and trust, and there are familial relationships.  It’s telling that Logan leaves Laura behind when they first come under assault, grabbing Xavier and saying, “She’s not our problem.”  Clearly this changes as he learns about his connection to Laura from Gabriela’s recording and Xavier’s prodding, but the real sense of family between those two doesn’t come through–at least from Logan–until nearly the film’s end.

And it is that relationship that is used to violent effect upon Xavier, as a cloned, younger replica of Logan sneaks up on him and mortally wounds him before he can take action to defend himself.  It ends up being the first of several hard to watch deaths in the film, another notable feature Logan brings to the table.  And while it’s hard to watch Xavier die in front of Logan during the action (I mean, really, it was), the emotional wallop comes afterwards, when Logan has buried him, and can’t come up with anything to say, plodding and stumbling through just a few words about having “water nearby” before finally giving up.

One fairly amusing theme in all of this grit involves communication, namely how Laura communicates, particularly with Logan.  Through out the first two thirds of the movie, she is silent, or at least wordless, only giving voice to primal screams during fights. Xavier can communicate with her telepathically, and relays her thoughts to Logan, but he also speaks back to her in Spanish, apparently how Laura understands language.  After Xavier’s death, Laura starts speaking to Logan–in Spanish.  Which is hilarious, as Logan clearly doesn’t understand a lick of Spanish.  When she finally does start speaking to him in English, the end of the movie is nearly upon viewers.

Which does set up the most emotionally impactful–if not terribly original–moment of the film.  In most films where there are distance issues between a parent and child, one of the most powerful moments is when the child finally utters the word, “Mom” or “Dad” for the first time.  After Logan‘s high-stakes, action packed finale, we have a mortally wounded Logan, fading and dying despite Laura’s best efforts to save him.  She finally breaks down and calls him “Daddy” just before he passes.  And even though you see the moment coming a mile away, even though you know this is a trick verging on outright manipulation, you can’t help but feel the power of that word when Laura speaks it.

There are plenty of other details I’m leaving out, but these are the most memorable ones I could recall from seeing Logan.  It’s a violent movie, with plenty of blood and gore.  It’s dark.  It’s gritty and hard to watch.  People and characters you care for will suffer, and die.  It’s fierce.  It’s cutthroat, literally, in places.  It’s visceral.  And it’s quite possibly the best film that stars Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine–and I include the X-Men films in that group.  It’s an excellent swan song for a beloved actor/character pairing that filmgoers and fans have loved for the last 17 years.

Onto Valhalla with you, movie Wolverine.  And to Hugh Jackman: well done, good sir.  Very well done indeed.

And as this is Patrick Stewart’s final outing with Charles Xavier, I will simply say thank you.  You were an amazing Professor X, as well as a wonderful Captain Picard.  I can’t wait to see what you do next.