Why The Words?

I’m bad at updating this blog, for any number of reasons.  I don’t always like to talk about myself, I’m terrible at self-promoting, etc…

Lately, with the atrocities committed by the government in this country that I’m supposed to hold dear, I’ve been noisy on social media.  I feel like any long form commentary will devolve into angry ramblings at this point, lacking anything productive that other people haven’t said already.

Instead, I’ve been thinking about the authors I love, those whose words inspire me.  One of my current favorites, both for his fiction and opinions, would be Chuck Wendig.  Follow him on Twitter.  Read his blog, especially this piece here.  He speaks volumes.

The authors we grow up reading are the ones that influence us, whether we are cognizant of it at the time.  Our list of favorite books may grow over time, but the memories of the past linger.  One of my all-time favorite authors, Steven Brust, wrote a thing for Tor.com about another one of my all-time favorite authors, Roger Zelazny.  His thoughts about the quality of the writing and how inspiring it was, well, it inspired me to write about it.  Coincidentally, Brust and I share an opinion on Zelazny’s writing.  It’s complex layers, even when the story didn’t work fully.  The depth, the juxtaposition.  The ability to speak to a reader.  Brust’s work, inspired in part by Zelazny, has had a similar effect on me.

The list of authors whose back catalogue I seek out, who’s bibliography always has a place on my shelf, is not a long one.  They are more often than not fantasy writers, but ones that have attained a mythological aspect of their own.  They are writing fantastical stories, in our world or in another, that are most decidedly human.

Neil Gaiman

A household name for the nerd set, needing no introduction from myself.  His work with the Sandman series was not only the first comic book that bound my brain, but the first time I read something that fit into a spiritual mindset I had started to form.  My first encounter with the concept of consensual reality, that is, the idea that if enough people believe in it, it exists.

Roger Zelazny

I was introduced to Zelazny almost concurrently by my father and stepfather, in the form of The Chronicles of Amber.  A sweeping epic of philosophy, many worlds and the godlike beings from Amber that could walk between them.  There were politics, feuds, epic battles, fights against demons and otherworldly beings.  There was philosophy and poetry, and they were laden with intense layers that I wouldn’t even begin to comprehend until much later.  They showed me the importance of authorial voice, how well one could use an unreliable narrator and how to take a flawed protagonist to a deeper level.  Lord of LightJack of Shadows, and Damnation Alley are just a few others that hold root in my mind.

Charles De Lint

De Lint, both a prolific author and a very talented musician, was the first urban fantasy writer I discovered, or rather, was introduced to.  He wrote stories of myths, faerie tales and more, brought into our modern world.  The fictional city of Newford was vibrant and alive, with characters that formed a central core.  And yet, all of the short stories (of which there are a plethora) and the novels stood on their own.  There were familiar faces, that grew and evolved if you read them in the order they were written, but rarely were they the sole protagonists.  Someplace To Be Flying is still my go-to read when I need something comforting and familiar, and the book still reveals new details each time.  The body of work that Charles De Lint wrought serves as a constant reminder of the importance of Mystery and Grace in our world.

Steven Brust

My stepdad introduced me to Steven Brust’s Jhereg some time after I’d devoured the Amber series.  As a teenager, I was enamored of this sarcastic, witty assassin and his wisecracking familiar.  A crime story in a fantasy world unlike anything I’d seen before.  Each novel just the right pace.  The books did not come out in chronological order, but in a fashion that made sense to Vlad as he narrated.  Or to Steven as he wrote it.  Every time a new iteration in the series comes out, I reread them all.  I am never disappointed, even by a few of the weird ones in the middle.  Having read them chronologically, I find that I prefer the order they were published in.  With the newest one, Vallista, coming out shortly, I feel the series reread approaching.

And I love his other work, like The Gypsy (cowritten with Megan Lindholm), but then he had to go blow it all out of the water.  He wrote The Incrementalists with Skylar White, and it is a book that I am still processing, especially in light of current events.  The sequel, The Skill Of Our Hands, was just released and is proving as elegant and thought-provoking as one would expect.

The Others

The list of authors that I love is a long one, and most things I read impact the way I view stories, for good or for ill.  Sometimes I read something that leaves me stunned, wishing I had half the gumption to conjure such sorcery with fingers and keys.

One of my favorite series is Bordertown, from the brilliant minds of Terri Windling, Ellen Kushner and a whole slew of others.  A techno-magical dystopian city that exists on the border of Faerie and The World, where neither magic nor technology act as they should.  Where punk kids, outsiders and the Elven Lords intermingle, with motorcycles powered by spells and magical books inside magical books.  It steadied the rage within me, gave me a place to dream of and a thing I wanted to be a part of, not just as a reader but as a writer.

Coincidentally, Charles De Lint, Neil Gaiman and Steven Brust have also contributed to the Bordertown legacy, along with other favorites like Emma Bull, Will Shetterley, Midori Snyder, Delia Sherman, Holly Black, Cory Doctorow and Jane Yolen.  I keep working at a short story, an offering to the Border.  Maybe some day, my name will grace the table of contents of an anthology.

Writing, for me at least, is a part of a never-ending urge to create, to tell stories, to mutate perspective.  A way to filter truth, and to create something lasting that will find purpose for others beyond my original intentions.  I hope that in time my legacy will be as powerful as any of the authors listed above, that perhaps some 30 or 40 years from now (if reading hasn’t been outlawed), someone will include me in this list, even as a footnote.

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Insanity, Day One

Day one of National Novel Writing Month is a wrap for this guy.  I wrote a prologue and a first chapter and I already feel way better than I have about things that I have written in quite sometime.  So yay for that.

Word Count for Day One: 2475.

Opening line: The sky was clear of clouds, stars dotting the veil of black sky, the moon a red sliver.

How about you?  Did you make 1667?  Or whatever your goal was?

Don’t worry if you didn’t.  There’s time.  No pressure, just have fun.

Are you happy with what you wrote?  No, stop reading it.  You’re just going to get mad about it.  No edits until December.  Or January.

You are kick-ass.  You are a writer.  A Nanite.  A Wrimo.  I believe in you.

So You Want To NaNoWriMo

So you’ve decided to take the leap.  Is it your first year?  Your billionth?  Are you a professional writer?  You ARE?  WHY ARE YOU READING MY BLOG!?

 

Okay, so let’s get back to first timers.  Or repeat offenders.  What’s your plan?

STEP ONE:  MAKE A PLAN

My plan has been to half-ass an outline, of which I’ll maybe get half the month out of.  And then I’ll pants* the rest.  I’ve had the heart of this story in some iteration or another for years, so I’m confident.  I’ve got extensive notes about these characters.  I have oodles of witty dialogue involving a psionic direwolf.  I’m on this shit.

STEP TWO: WRITE THAT SHIT

Easier said than done, right?  Absolutely.

Make time for yourself to write.  Steal it.  Do what you have to.  I’m planning on writing at lunch, and then for at least a couple hours at home after work.  I’m lucky though, because my wife is also a writer.  She gets it.

You’re not writing a masterpiece… even if that’s the endgame.  You’re writing 1700 words a day, every day.

That means no editing, no rewrites.  Only go forward.  Frustrated?  Skip that section and write the next one.  Or drink.  Just kidding.  You can drink and write at the same time.  Don’t give up or give in to despair.  That’s what half-way through December is for.

STEP THREE: ?????

STEP FOUR: PROFIT

Okay, now we’re underpants gnomes.  Sorry about that.

You’re the only winner with NaNoWriMo.  Your whole plan was to write FIFTY THOUSAND WORDS IN THIRTY DAYS!  You didn’t give up!  You didn’t surrender!

THIS WAS A TERRIBLE PEP TALK, RIGHT?

I’d apologize, but let’s face it.  We’re in the same boat.  Work competes with the projects and no plan survives contact with the enemy.

You’re going to feel an intense pressure, as with any attempt to write. (Or not, in which, you’re awesome.  Go you.)  But if you keep writing, you keep working, you’ll get it done.

I’m just some guy writing on the internet, but I believe in you.  I know that if you want to do this insane thing, you will do it.  Maybe I’ll even read it when you’re done.

 

It’s Nearly Here

So it’s that time of year, that most magical time of year.  Leaves have turned colors and fallen off the trees.  The houses are decorated with spooky things and my daughter is asking when we’re going to carve her pumpkin nine million times an hour.

That magical time of year where I wonder just how long it will take before I cave and get into the Halloween stash.  Where I check the levels of beer, whiskey, coffee and other necessities.

In one week, it will be the first of November.  In Colorado that’s the first (and last) week of Fall.

It is the day in which a bunch of word-obsessed maniacs hurl themselves, heart and soul, into the masochistic craft of writing a novel.

It’s National Novel Writing Month!  50k words in 30 days.  1700 words a day, for 30 days.  If you break it down even more, 500 words at 12pt font is about a page.  So just over 3 pages a day.

Madness, lunacy!  What’s the point?

You mean, other than the stories themselves?  I have no clue.  The feeling of satisfaction?  Practice?  An opportunity to get a first draft done.  Learning to accept that sometimes you have to write a whole bunch of shit to figure out how a project works.

Its a contest.  So what do you win?  You win 50k words towards a finished novel.  And a cool sticker for your social media page.

In one week, this shit begins!  Don’t let the fuckery keep you down!

Deep Dish Youth

What follows is my attempt at recollection, a memoir if you will.  My road from waiting tables in high school to fine dining line chef.  There will likely be detours on the way, or stray tangents.  The lessons I’ve learned, the things to pass on.  I’m going to try to start at the beginning.

*~*~*~*~*

I think it’s common knowledge that I grew up in a foodie household.  My mother is an excellent cook and she used to be a professional in her youth, before I was born.  She also made the desserts for my wedding, which were perfectly amazing.

I spent a lot of time helping my mother in the kitchen while I was growing up.  I learned the basics of a kitchen, as well as an appreciation for some of the finer aspects of the culinary arts.  Of course, none of these reasons explain why I chose to work in restaurants instead of just throwing exemplary dinner parties like a sensible person.

In truth, the road to the back of the house was practical in some choices, desperate in others.  Though a passion for good food drives me, skill and need drew me deeper into the well.

I never wanted to work in restaurants.  Except maybe as the cool bartender or something, before I knew how much actual work was involved.  I wanted to be a rockstar/famous actor-director.  Or I was going to be a cult-of-personality writing sensation.  I think I even seriously considered black magic as a means to instant wealth.

Through hindsight I can call it foreshadowing, but in reality my mother begged, cajoled, needled and threatened dire punishment until I dragged my heels into Edwardo’s Pizza and the owner was kind enough to take a chance on me.  I worked there for most of my senior year of high school, waiting tables while doing homework and radiating teen angst.

I’ve really only got vague memories of that place.  I barely cared about it and didn’t fully appreciate even a meager paycheck or cash in my pocket.  I learned how to pour a glass of wine and fill a pitcher of beer without too much head.  I had to relearn that later, when serving beer became a bigger part of my job.

I also had my first taste of how people treat service professionals, from kindness to blatant disregard.  I got $10 tips on $10 checks and had $200 tables of ten walkout without leaving so much as a penny.  I can and will write a whole chapter on dining etiquette in restaurants, be they fast food chains or three Michelin starred.  But I don’t want to get distracted now.

 I had a taste of life as a service professional and I hated it.  On my feet for six to twelve hours, underpaid and underappreciated.  That I was a self-involved teenage shithead with no plan and no solid ambition probably didn’t help.

I should add that, being a good Chicagoan, I love deep dish pizza.  I wish that I had learned to make them while I was a that place.  That beautiful chewy, flaky crust rising up over glorious pizza, covered in thick marinara and stuffed full of cheese and goodies.  Spinach and pesto is my favorite from Edwardo’s.  Chicago’s?  Roast beef and garlic.  Giordano’s?  Sausage and spinach.  Gino’s East doesn’t stuff their pizza, but their cornmeal crust is nice.  I like their pizza with pepperoni.

Along with my disdain for making a living at the mercy of others, a foolish notion in its own right, I decided that rather than going to college I was going to move into Chicago proper.  Oh the stories that could be told from the years that followed.  Sex, drugs, booze and rock ’n’ roll, and a party that didn’t always end well.  I could probably fill a book just from my years living in the apartment known as the House of the Lotus Eaters.

I worked in a now-closed SF/F bookstore in Evanston for a while.  Then did some clerical work for a homeopathic clinic at the edge of Lincoln Park.  Another place deserving of a book to itself, between the doctors and the clients.  From there I went to a legit clerical position with a major non-profit, where I learned the hard way why I don’t do desk jobs.

Eventually, due to what amounted to a minor nervous breakdown, I left the non-profit and failed to find work.

I’m almost certain that I was a pretty unpleasant person to be around in those days.  Broke, hungry and usually drunk or high.  No savings and ever-growing debt on top of terrible credit.  I still wasn’t very good about forethought and planning, so I couldn’t pay bills or rent and I was about to get kicked out of another apartment.

Fortunately one of my close friends had just returned from a vacation in Yosemite National Park.  I was on the verge of full-blown panic when I called him.  He told me he’d think about my situation and call me back.

He did, about ten minutes later, with a brilliant suggestion.  Get a job at Yosemite.  He had met some folks that worked there and I would fit in.  He paid for the train ride and put me up at his place until I got hired.

I sold or stored my things, stripped myself down to the bare essentials.  I was going to live in the mountains so I didn’t need much at all.  I spent a couple weeks saying my goodbyes and I was off.  For the first time, I was leaving Chicago without knowing when I’d see it or the people in it again.

Even in the thick of the chaos that was my life back then, I understood that I was at a precipice.  Though I was running off half-cocked, I knew that whatever came next would change me.  I was getting back to nature, to gain focus and perspective.  More importantly, I was taking direct action, instead of just waiting for something awesome to just happen.  And so off to California I went.

*~*~*~*~*

Next up (in no particular order)

– Lessons in Humility, the Road to Adulthood (or How I Stopped Worrying and Embraced the Mundane)

– Proper Etiquette For Dining Out

– Adventures at 10,000 Feet

Room for Discourse

This is an article I had originally written for Fantasy Faction, which I thought I’d share here:

 

Room for Discourse

 

Everyone has read a novel that changed the way they perceive the world around them or caused them to reexamine facets of their own lives. Perhaps the change was dramatic, but most often it was a subtle and lingering effect. History contains thousands of examples, from Pliny the Elder and Aristotle to more modern examples, like Philip K. Dick and Steven Jay Gould, of how literature can be used as a vehicle for social and cultural discourse.

There are many examples, both lofty and literary, of philosophies and anthropological treatises in our continuing conversation on society, culture and human nature. Poets and novelists fill libraries with the subject, but the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy are often overlooked, or worse, dismissed as being childish escapism.

This hasn’t always been the case and there are examples of science-fiction stories and works of dystopia that have ascended to the heights of literary classics or cultural icons. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm come to mind, as well as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Phillip K. Dick come to mind as well.

 

Spoonful of Sugar

 

Science-fiction, often being set in humanity’s future where cultures and technologies have evolved as we move amongst the stars and our alien peers (or enemies), can be easy to understand and interpret as food for thought. The wonders of new worlds, where sects of society can flourish uninhibited, appeals to the imagination. The mysteries of other species can be like shadow puppets, examining humanity’s xenophobia and fear of that which is different through the trappings of the exotic and terrifying. It can be a delicate examination of expansionism, nationalism or civic pride painted on a canvas as big as the imagination and wrapped in a tale of daring adventure.

In the Fantasy settings, these trappings can be further exaggerated while we focus on imperialism, zealotry, slavery and the nature of Evil. We detail the triumph of human ingenuity and spirit as our lowly farm boy overcomes his station and becomes champion to the world. The indomitable spirit of Justice and the forces of Good prevailing despite overwhelming odds can be inspiration to overcome our daily dragons.

Horror, as a sub-set of Fantasy, explores the darker aspects of human nature. Serial killers, horrific monsters and overwhelming fear of the darkness lurking at the edge of our vision spur us to look for the light in the world as much as they titillate us with gruesome images. Stories of the world overtaken by ravenous, mindless undead hordes can be critique of greed and complacency.

What makes these genres that much more subversive than anything else? And what is it about them that makes social and cultural discourse more palatable? Some works are far more blatant about their philosophies than others, such as Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Others, such as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire presents critical thought on politics and morality amidst the scheming, warring and backbiting. Creating a fantastic setting allows a writer to take themes or ideas out of a modern context and frame them in the abstract, altering perspective and perception.

 

Love and Hate

 

In the best works of Fantasy and Science-Fiction, we find evil in the strangest places. The best villains are sympathetic, so that even as you cheer for their downfall you still reach an understanding in their motivations. Even more so are the anti-heroes, who do what is right even if it is ultimately self-serving, and whose morals and means are questionable. They are the assassins, wetboys, barbarians and warlords that populate modern fantasy, hardened killers and callous thieves holding onto ancient grievances and deep-seated scars.

These anti-heroes and villains represent the moral gray area, and give us pause to reflect on ourselves and how we would act, put into such a situation. The lowly farm boy, full of pluck and vigor, has given way to the endearing urchin, suffering abuse and cruelty and set out on revenge.

The monsters our heroes face are often human traits given substance. The dragons of old Europe, creatures of pure avarice and destruction perched high on their mountains of treasure, waiting to devour the next would-be slayer. The vampire as our desire for immortality and eternal beauty, but also as our obsession with death. Werewolves and the like can be seen as representative of our conflict with our own animal natures. Those things that we dislike in others are often the traits we fear in ourselves, projections of our own self-image. It would make sense then that these traits become symbols for the hero to overcome.

 

A Civil Discourse At The End Of The World

 

The Apocalypse and Dystopian worlds have long been fodder for writers, often blatant in their criticisms of society. In 1950, George R. Stewart published Earth Abides, one of the first novels to examine a world without people. In the novel, a plague eradicates all but a handful of our species, leaving the Earth once again in the care of nature. Isherwood Williams, the protagonist, explore the ruins of the United States and eventually gathers a group of survivors to him. Ish grows to fear the loss of humanity’s intellectual legacy as those who survive struggle with more mundane, day-to-day issues such as food, shelter, clothing and protecting their families. The story is told from Ish’s perspective, chronicling his change from isolationist on the edge of society to the father of a new one. Though written just after the second World War, the story holds up remarkably well as a dialogue on human nature.

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother presents the reader with a dystopian world only slightly removed from our own, as a terrorist attack destroys San Francisco’s East Bay Bridge and the Department of Homeland Security places the city under martial law. The story is one of extremes, of government in the hands of zealots, the effects of American complacency and the spirit of rebellion and civil discourse that the United States was originally founded under. The protagonist of the tale is a 17-year-old kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, forced to examine his role in society and how he comes to form a grass-roots rebellion to overthrow an authority grown corrupt. It is a story that hits close to home, of civil liberty and the post 9/11 culture of fear in America.

There are so many tales of corrupt governments and humanity’s survival, it would be impossible for me to list all of them. While often less subtle in their analysis and critique, they still provide the reader with a heaping spoonful of moral fiber to chew on, amidst the chaos and adventure. Other great examples are Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. In Storm Constantine’s Wraethu, she presents a post-apocalyptic world where humans have begun to be overshadowed by the Wraethu, our next step in evolution. The tale is as much an adventure in strange magics and alien cultures as an examination of gender roles amongst human society.

 

The Pursuit of Happiness

 

Maybe you don’t want to swallow some heavy philosophical diatribe when you read. Maybe all you want out of your SF/F&H are crunchy action bits and thrilling acts of escapism. Maybe you want to live in another world for a few hours, or a few hundred pages, at a time. To experience the joys and sorrows of someone else, as they quest to save their family, the world or even just themselves.

Isn’t the need or desire for escapism a comment in and of itself? Perhaps you need a vacation from the stress of work, school or family. Perhaps you feel your life is so dull and mundane that you need to spend some time in Middle-Earth, Malazan, Dragaera or Melnibone. Or maybe, in your pursuit of sciences, you read space operas to inspire your worldy interests. Maybe you love to envision new cultures as a way to examine the rise and infuences of cultures from our world’s past or to speculate on an alternate course in history.

What books have made you think? What books have made you consider a different perspective, or try and understand the world in a different way? What books have filled you with a sense of outrage for injustices both fictional and real? Did I miss one of your favorites? Do you think I’m wrong? Tell me in the comments, and let there be discourse.

Blame the Refill!

So I’ve been hanging out at this awesome message board for science-fiction and fantasy lovers (both readers and writers) called Fantasy Faction.  Interesting conversation, excellent reviews and like-minded writers in one spot.  They have a monthly writing challenge, open to all comers.  February, being full of hearts and romance, posed the following challenge: ‘Write a 500 word scene that involves romance. There must be fantasy and there must be at least one laugh.’

What follows is my entry.  Let me know what you think.  (And thanks to my lovely wife for help with the title and edits)

 

Blame the Refill by Matthew T Maenpaa

 

I struck the match against the side of the box, the sulfur mingling with the faint scent of sage burning in my bedroom as I lit the taper candles in the dining room. The overhead was turned down low, my attempt at creating a nice romantic atmosphere.

Talia and I had started as coworkers, then friends, and had been dating for a couple years now.  I had known right away that I loved her, but there were moments that seemed as if she were only biding her time.  Tonight would be the night though, when I would know for sure that she loved me.

I could hear the flush of the toilet and the tap turning on in the bathroom. With dinner on the table and the candles lit, there was only one thing left. After filling each of our glasses with pinot noir, I fished a vial of murky liquid from my jacket pocket. The gypsy woman had warned me that the potion would take a while to set in, at least an hour. I uncorked it and poured a splash into Talia’s wine glass. The love potion seemed like cheating but nothing wrong with giving Fate a hand, right?

The sound of running water ended and I could hear the bathroom door open, followed by the clatter of high-heels on hardwood. I replaced the cork and shoved the vial into my pocket, smiling at my future wife as she entered the kitchen. “The candles are really sweet, Marlon.  They make this place look cute.”

I offered her my most handsome grin as I pulled out her chair. “Thanks, Talia. It’s usually fine for Winston and me, but we wanted it to be special for you.”

She settled into the table, eying the meal. “Lamb chops! Marlon, these are my favorite!”

“How could I forget?”

We made small talk as we ate, a bit about work, a bit about our families. I kept waiting for our eyes to lock, to feel that spark between us. The gypsy had told me that the potion was simple. Mix it in her drink. Wait an hour. Make sure you two are absolutely alone in the room. She will only have eyes for you thereafter.

With the meal finished and the table cleared, Talia and I moved to the small sofa in my living room. Before leaving the kitchen, I refreshed our wine and added another splash of the potion to hers for good measure. The jangle of a collar told me that Winston, my French bulldog, had woken up and decided to visit with the company. Carrying both of our glasses in one hand, a plate of chocolate truffles in the other, I entered the living room.

Talia was on her knees petting the dog, their eyes locked. The tone in her voice made my heart sink. “Marlon, your dog is perfect.”

I tried to smile. “Isn’t he just?”

She glanced up at me, enough to see the glassy look of devotion in her eyes before she returned her gaze to my dog. “Winston, I could just love you forever.”