The Battle

Neutron Stars Rip Each Other Apart to Form Black Hole

They can’t live at the same time, in the same place. They vibrate at different frequencies, but they both resonate, and there’s only so much room. This town, as they say, isn’t big enough for the both of them. It would be fine if they would just learn to take turns like nice polite unformed bundles of energetic potential. But they’re not nice, and they’re not polite. Each of them is insistent that they have to go now, that they cannot wait, and that I will only ever have the energy and inspiration required for one of them.

It’s difficult to stop talking about them in the abstract because they are so abstract. That’s part of the problem. It’s hard to even pin down exactly what they are, but I’ll try, or else that first paragraph is never going to make sense to anyone but myself.

They are novels. Or rather, they’re the ideas for novels. No, that’s not right either. They aren’t ideas in the sense of premises. I have no idea what either of them is about, or rather, I have lots of ideas. Most of my many potential novel ideas–and half-written novels–are composed of wisps of one or the other. Or both, which is its own problem.

They aren’t genres, either. The closest I can say is that they are styles of novel. That’s accurate, but it’s a different use of the word “style” than is usual.

How about I describe them. Maybe that will help. They’re enthusiastic about that. Right now, in my head where they’re constantly fighting, they’re getting excited. Or rather, the first one is getting excited. The second one doesn’t do excitement, as such. That will make more sense in a minute. But yes, describing them is the best idea. Or rather, I’ll let them come out and describe themselves.

The first one I’ll call KAPOW! KAPOW! is big and bright and vibrant. An explosion of a novel. It’s definitely fantasy, or science fiction, or science fantasy, or science fantasy horror dread-punk post-post-modern psuedo-apocalyptica. It can be any or all of these things, because whatever it is, it’s a lot of it.

KAPOW!’s defining trait is that it bursts with ideas. It slams the reader with new, intriguing, fascinating, original concepts and twists of reality and imagery on every page. It uses a lot of adjectives, especially in describing itself. Think China Meiville. Think Planescape. Those are the obvious examples because they play so freely with setting, but I also include such works as John Dies at the End and–get ready to disagree with me–Harry Potter. Okay, Harry Potter isn’t all that original, nor is it trying to be, but it throws new bits of magic and wizard society and whatnot at you will obvious and infections glee, and that’s the point.

KAPOW! isn’t necessarily super-fast paced high adventure, but it does lend itself to that kind of storytelling. Those are the kind I generally come up with when I plan a KAPOW! novel, whether I want to or not. But they’re not critical. The important point is that the work scours the vast reaches of creativity.

The second novel style we shall call Masterwork. Masterwork is a piece of literature. It is contained within what is colloquially referred to as “genre,” as all of my interests lie therein, but it should not be sullied by associations with pulp or other forms of fiction intended merely as entertainment. Masterwork strives to tell a story about characters, about themes, and to impress upon the reader that such things can be meaningfully explored amidst the workings of the otherworldly and the supernatural.

Masterwork is quiet, at least in comparison to KAPOW! When composing an idea for Masterwork, I eschew such concepts as adventure and engagement. It’s a stretch to say that it is an attempt at Art. To say such a thing would be highly pretentious. However, should someone else partake of Masterwork and use such a word, Masterwork might not be taken upon to dispute the assertion.

Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is a good example, as is Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Or Watchmen. Steven King writes a lot of novels that sit comfortable in this range. It’s not necessary for a work to be considered literature by the sorts of people who care about that sort of thing. I’m not one of those people. It’s enough that fans of the genre would label it so.

These two styles, KAPOW! and Masterwork, these are the novels that I want to write. Both of them have a lot of room inside. The problem is, they don’t play together. Sure, a Masterwork can have KAPOW! elements, and a KAPOW! can have compelling characterization and quiet moments. I honestly wouldn’t be interested in writing either that didn’t contain some of the other.

But at their foundation they are different. So different that to start one I have to press down all of the forces inside of me urging me to write the other. This is usually pretty easy, since I’m both obsessive and fickle. If I just read something KAPOW!y, I probably want to write a KAPOW! Which is great. For a few weeks.

But I’m fickle. Oh, so very fickle. It won’t be long before the urge to write the other starts to tingle. I’ll become dissatisfied with my current outline or treatment or manuscript, and long to start the other. What’s the point of writing a cross universe heist story about a team of thieves who all possess a different form of immortality? That’s trying way too hard. Instead I should write about the development of two people’s relationship over seven winters, while strange things walk through the drifting snow.

Many writers have problems that keep our productivity down, and this war in my head is one of mine. There’s only room for one at a time, and matrices of possibility don’t like to take turns.

The Weird One

Headphones

Another 37, Day 27

The girl who wears the pink jacket. In my head I call her the Weird Girl. She used to sleep in alcove at the bottom of the stairs where they put in a couple of leather couches in an attempt to make our breaks more comfortable. Upstairs in the break room it kind of works. But the alcove is a strange spot; employees are always rushing through there on their way to and from places, and every entrance to the alcove comes from a blind spot.

When I see people there, which I usually do, it always feels like they’ve just jumped out at me. Jumped out and then sat perfectly still. I know it’s not just me. I get the same kind of looks from passersby when I sit there. “Where the hell did you come from?” Adding the couches ramped this effect up, and so it made the alcove, if anything, more uncomfortable.

Weird Girl used to sleep down there before her shift. Her shift is the same as mine: ungodly early. The couches are soft and spacious. They would make a lot more sense in the champagne room of a strip club that wasn’t quite nice enough to have a champagne room. I wonder if that’s where they came from. They look pretty new. She used to sleep in the morning on the couches, and so did I. I still do, sometimes, but I choose the break room. The lighting is better, and the couches are off in a corner. It’s much better.

Weird Girl was always the only one down in the alcove in the morning. There are two couches down there. The other one was always open. I passed it by and slept upstairs. Upstairs was prime real estate, and those couches were sometimes taken by the time I got there. Sometimes someone was sleeping, and sometimes, much, much worse, people were talking loudly. Too early for that. If the upstairs couches were occupied I’d sit at one of the dining tables. But they were uncomfortable, and that early I have no patience for anything.

So one day  I decided to sleep downstairs. In the alcove. With Weird Girl. I went down and there she was, just an enormous, puffy pink jacket covering up her tiny, sleeping form. I laid down on the adjacent couch and closed my eyes. That’s when she started snoring. The moment I laid down, making just enough noise for her to notice. The snores were loud, and inconsistent in that way that makes it impossible to get used to. I stubbornly put it up with it for for about three minutes before I could no longer stand it. I got up and went upstairs. I don’t know for sure if she was doing it deliberately. But I don’t know her, and so I’m free from the burdens of empathy and familiarity that bind me from seeing her as a complete person. And so I decide to believe she did it on purpose, to drive me away. It worked.

That was months ago. Weird Girl doesn’t wear the puffy pink jacket anymore. She ditched it for one much more dignified, even before it got warm. I’ve heard her speak a lot more. She doesn’t sleep in the mornings anymore. Maybe she gets there later. She also doesn’t sit alone in the lunchroom anymore. Not every day, at least. She’s made a group of lunch friends.

I haven’t. I’ve made some friends on the floor, but I don’t eat with any of them. There are a few large groups of people who all eat together and have lively conversations. I don’t know whether or not I’m envious of them. I tell myself I’m not, that I’d rather take time during lunch away from people to do some reading. I do treasure that time. On the other hand, I know myself. I know that I come alive in groups of friends sitting around, discussing nothing, laughing and making them laugh. The time would go too quickly, but maybe I’d treasure it. I haven’t tried to make those friends.

Instead I sit alone, listening to my audiobooks with my enormous headphones. The kind that make you look isolated and ridiculous. And I eat my strange little bowls of meat and veggies from home, and when I’m done I rinse out the ceramic bowls in the sink and plunk them down in my bag. When I walk back to the floor it sounds like I’m carrying dishware around in a reusable grocery bag through the halls, because that’s exactly what I’m doing. And I still sleep on the couch in the morning. For a while I didn’t, but I’m back to it now. I pull my hood over my face and try not to give dirty looks to anyone who comes in and turns on the light. The light needs to be turned on eventually.

I know that these strangers who I see every day but have never spoken to have an impression of me. That’s what people do. It could be anything, free as it is from the restraints of empathy and familiarity that would make them think of me as anything but a feature of the environment. A semi-fictional character in the backdrop of their own story, who can be extrapolated as much as he needs to be from the obvious traits. What’s the harm in that? It’s what we do.

Some of them probably think of me as Headphone Guy. The headphones probably make me look strange, with my sweatshirt full of tissues, and the way that sometimes when I haven’t shaved in a day or two some tissue fibers stick to the bristles under my nose without my realizing they’re there. Maybe some of them think of me as the Weird Guy. The guy who does Tai Chi in the middle of the break room seems to know and say hi to more of them than I do, so if there has to be a Weird Guy, it could certainly be me.

Does that make me uncomfortable? Do I care? Honestly, I have no idea.

Those Ideas

ONE up mushroom : tshirt painting, san francisco (2013)Another 37, day 12

The other day as I walked out of work I saw a neat looking mushroom on the grass. I was extraordinarily tired on this particular day because it was the morning after Daylight Torture Time day, an alternate version of Daylight Savings Time day that overlays the usual version and has exactly the same effects, except that it can only be perceived by those of us cursed to work Sunday mornings. I assure that on that day we hate all of you. Also probably other days? We’re an angry people, us Sunday workers.

I was also tired because, despite working Sunday mornings, I always go out Saturday night. Hey, you’ve got to live, even if your version of living involves Saturday Dungeons and Dragons where you play some kind of elf ninja assassin who is the scion of a fallen magical kingdom. Not that you would ever admit such a thing on a blog. Anyway, the point here is that I was very tired, but I was also in a very good mood because I was walking out of work, which is the desirable direction. Also we gained a level in the game the night before. Hypothetically.

I was tired, in a good mood, and I saw an interesting mushroom. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of writing—for evidence see…this blog post– and during those phases my brain generates a lot of story ideas. Sometimes they are passing fancies, and sometimes I fixate on them long enough to come up with an actual narrative. But they almost always seem at least mildly amazing during the moment of conception. I like to think that my brain has a filter where it only lets the good ideas through. I like to think a lot of things.

As soon as I saw the mushroom my synapses lit up and got to work. What if there was an entire region composed of just these mushrooms? Wouldn’t that be fascinating? A whole kingdom. Some kind of…mushroom kingdom! The idea danced around in my mind, and I got all the way to my car—a good, embarrassing 45 seconds—before I realized that “Mushroom Kingdom” wasn’t a new idea. Did I mention I was tired?

Not all fiction writers come up with a lot of ideas. Not all writers are even interested in coming up with a lot of ideas. People have different writing superpowers, and idea generation is just one of them. It’s one I happen to have, but I’m honestly rather jealous of people who have fewer ideas about crazy stuff and, I don’t know, naturally write rich dialogue or distinctive characters. Their grass always looks so much purpler than mine.

I don’t know what it’s like inside of the minds of other idea-writers, but I have a feeling it’s just as messy and ridiculous as it is the chocolate factory perched atop my own neck. The thing is, an awful lot of being good at something is just about caring about it. Research into expertise shows that the best violin players aren’t the ones with the most natural talent, but the ones who practice the most. Studies of genius show that the most intelligent people are always deliberately learning; they don’t just suck in information, they fixate on it. Likewise I find ideas intoxicating for their own sake, so I think about them; I pursue them. I’m sure I’m not alone.

On the other hand, coming up with a lot of ideas means coming up with a lot of bad ideas. And being fascinated by them. Certain ideas pop into the mind and seem amazing, but are either really stupid or too nebulous to articulate in a way that is even a little interesting. I make lists of my ideas so that I can come back to them later, and whenever I read through those lists I have to conclude that one of the anthropomorphic beings sits in the abstract representation of my brain and runs my creativity is, in fact, a dumbass. He probably wears a stupid hat.

Right now I’m combing through a list of horror story ideas for a horror comic I’m going to be working on with a friend. There are some pretty cool ideas in there, but there also a few that are…less cool. Here are a few of my favorites, copied exactly as they appear in the file:

  • Creepy wooden doll that is creepy in some way.
  • A horrible church, where everyone gets up to horrible things.
  • Something about a statue? Like, maybe an evil…statue. Ugh.
  • There’s something here about fog. A really good idea. About fog. I don’t quite have it.
  • A man who hates trains.

I don’t remember the moment I came up with all of those. But I can assure you that each of those ideas seem to me, for at least one, crystalline moment, utterly brilliant.

Grapes, Zombies, and The Complexity of the Universe

Blue grapes

Another 37, day six

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: never start your blog post with a cliche.

No, wait, that’s not what I was going to say. What I’ve said before is this: the universe is too damn complicated. The quest to understand everything is hilarious futile, because it’s almost impossible to understand anything at all. I’m not talking about broad reaching fields like mathematics or botany. I mean any single thing. Like a grape.

If, for example you had a particular grape, you could spend your entire life studying it and you’d still leap into your grave at the age of 115 unable to take with you everything there is to know about that grape. It’s history, the complex web of relationships between the bacteria feasting on its sugars and the yeast bloom on its skin, the exact position of the electrons in the outermost valences of its outward-facing skin molecules that give it it’s specific color. And, of course, if you spend your whole life studying it you would never know what it tasted like, because the moment you popped it into your mouth your studies would end. It’s the quantum observer effect, grape flavored.

What does this have to do with coming up with blog post ideas? I’m glad you, the hypothetical Perfect Reader, asked. I get hung up on complexity when I think about almost anything, but most specifically about everyone’s favorite subject: me, and the contents of my own mind. Just to clarify I mean that everyone’s favorite subject is they themselves and their own minds, not mine. I’m not quite enough of an egomaniac that I think everyone is sitting our thinking about Jesse. I am enough of an egomaniac to believe, with little to no evidence of course, that they might be  better off if they did. I, at least, find myself fascinating.

I’m also enough of an egomaniac to write this terrifically self-indulgent blog post. Isn’t that what blogging is all about? The answer is no, of course not. Dale Carnegie wrote a very famous book you’ve definitely heard of about how to get people to give a toss about what you are saying, and nearly every piece of advice boils down to this: people care about themselves, so get your head out of your ass and start talking about stuff relevant to them, you twat! Except he wrote the book in 1936, so he didn’t use words like “twat” and most of his examples involved hollyhocks.

So I try not to write about myself too much, and I end up doing it mostly when I don’t have any other ideas. It’s a piece of advice given to writers with writer’s block: if you can’t write anything, write about how you can’t write anything. I don’t exactly get writer’s block, but I do get stuck in idea-vacuums. Which is weird, because I think of myself as an idea person.

And I am. Ideas bloom out of my head so fast I can’t trim them down before they overgrow my face. It’s been known to delude those people with psychic idea-vision into thinking I actually have hair. Magic, flowery, idea-hair. It’s a think. I have a lot of ideas, but here’s where the complexity comes in: the ideas are always bizarre. I come up with a lot of ideas for stories. Weird, out-there stories about crazy things.

Put me in a room with ten well-educated and intelligent but otherwise random people and have us compete in a contest for who can come up with ten original non-humanoid sentient races that are all different from each other the fastest, and I’ll stand a very high chance of winning. If that sounds like an interesting skill to you, then I thank you for the compliment. If that sounds like a useless skill, then I applaud your practicality and I might need to borrow some cash if you can spare it. If those same ten people are engaged in a contest for something simple and practical, like screwing screws into a piece of cork board, I will probably come in last.

My skill at idea generation diminishes the further it moves from the abstract and fantastical towards that other thing. What’s it called? Right, the real world. I don’t exactly believe in the real world, but it seems to believe in me, so I guess I have to run with it. Even coming up with blog post ideas strains me. It would be easier if I had fewer restrictions of myself, of course. I tend to find restrictions restricting. It seems obvious, but a lot of people find it easier to come up with ideas when they have parameters. I tend to go the other way because my brain is so abstract. I mean that literally. Cut open my head and it looks like a damn Picasso in there.

So here I am. I’m out of practice, which is part of why this is so hard. But even when I was blogging every day it was a struggle. Ask me to come with, I don’t know, some new explanation for zombies we haven’t seen before, and I’m all over it. Here’s one: a plane with a shipment of chips designed to interface with victims of paralysis and restore their functionality crashes into the Amazon. Over the course of a year a parasitic microscopic fungus grows over the wreckage and grows into the circuitry, where its filaments spread and learn to ape the structure of the chips. When humans come to investigate the shipment, the fungus infects them, and since it has learned to emulate a structure that can interface with the human nervous system, it takes them over. Now the humans are motivated by the same thing as the fungus, consumption, infection, reproduction, and the fungal-human-computer zombies spread and continue to grow in complexity, maybe as a hive mind the way some fungi form large integrated groups?

That’s just the kind of thing my brain does. I’m not claiming that was a brilliant idea or anything, but that exact kind of idea generation isn’t much of a struggle. But come up with simple article ideas for a writing blog? It’s like climbing a mountain. So it’s hard to say to myself whether I am idea person or not, because, after all, the universe is too damn complicated. And now I want grapes.

The Quantum Electric Meta-Fountain of Dynamic Creativity

Brain Spark

 

One of the most frustrating things about being an intelligent, widely read person who isn’t a genius is having to deal with the perpetual state of a head full of thought-forms and idea-particles and mind-sparks that are fascinating and intriguing and illuminating but that stubbornly refuse to gel into anything concrete or useful.

Now I can’t know for sure, but I suspect that if I was a genius — a true, spectacular, few-in-a-generation, genuinely brilliant mind — my problem would be…exactly the bloody same.

If you read a lot of writing on writing by writers, you will be well familiar with the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s infamous. It has become sort of a parody of a parody at this point. Supposedly, writers hate the question, and this is something everyone knows, and yet writers are still asked this all the time. Fans asks this for two main reasons:

  1. They want to generate the kind of ideas their favorite authors come up with, and
  2. They are baffled as to how to do it.

Authors hate this question both because they here it far to often, and because they cannot answer it sufficiently.

Better to ask an elephant how it got those lovely trunks. Because the terrible truth is that they are basically the same question. Writers — particular those in the more speculative and abstractly creative genres like SF and fantasy and all of their twisted, steam-powered, sparkle-dripping spawn– don’t go look for ideas so that they can become writers. They become writers because they have so many ornery and insistent ideas that won’t shut up until they write them down.

I wonder how often professional writers are asked the much more interesting and useful question: “How do you stop getting ideas?”

A few weeks ago I wrote a story about having writer’s block, because I was suffering from writer’s block. A reader left a comment that if my way of dealing with writer’s block is to transform it into a fantasy story then that is an unusual form of writer’s block. He was spot on. I don’t get the “I don’t have an idea and can’t write” form of writer’s block. At least, I haven’t gotten it since I actually started writing regularly. I haven’t posted anything here in almost a week, because I have too many damn ideas. It sounds great on paper, but it’s the dark-side of a hyperactive brain that naturally generates ideas. None of them will leave me alone long enough to spend enough time with any one of them to really get to know it.

Because writing a story is all about intimacy. It’s taking one of the ideas constantly calling and emailing and knocking at your door and finally letting it take you out to a nice dinner. The two of you have a glass of wine, laugh at each other’s bad jokes, and explore whether you find each other mutually interesting enough to try to make something together, even if it only lasts a short while. Because a lot of ideas are sexy. But sexiness isn’t enough, especially if you are going to do something so foolish as write a novel out of your idea. Good hair and high cheek bones aren’t enough. There needs to be depth. And compatibility.

Am I saying that if you don’t have a high-pressure idea pump without an off switch lodged unceremoniously in your brain that you can’t be a writer? No, of course not. Quite the opposite. Having ideas isn’t enough. And having too many ideas can be just as bad as not having any at all. After all, a single fantastic premise is all you need for an excellent novel. All I’m saying is that if coming up with intriguing and unusual ideas doesn’t come naturally to you, that probably isn’t the direction in which you should travel. You’d be better off focusing on writing engaging and believable characters in interesting but relatable situations.

That’s what most readers care about, anyway.