Category Archives: Writing

Entries where I talk about my writing: stories, novels, general creativity.

Thoughts from the Basement

Yesterday was a fairly productive day for me. After contacting most of the employers I’d spoken to at Wednesday’s job fair for yesterday’s round of "Nope, we don’t have anything your skills would be useful for, but we’ll keep your resume on hand just in case", I went off to the public library in Davis to do some writing and see if I could track down any poetry by Gary Snyder (more on that in a moment). Since "Mother Tsan-Chan" has been giving me such trouble lately, I decided to get cracking on the player’s information guide to the campaign setting for "Incident at Mount Joyce". To my surprise, I got nearly two thousand words written. Sometimes, it takes just a change in scenery to get the creative juices flowing. And during the excellent Call of Cthulhu game that Evilpheemy ran last night, I managed to churn out another two hundred more words.

Yeah. I love my Palm Pilot and the keyboard that comes with it. Much easier to lug around than my laptop; I can put my Palm Pilot in my pocket and ride my bike down to Starbucks to work there. Not that I actually get on my bike nearly as often as I should, of course. But the important thing is that I could.

Sadly, today has been less productive. I’m simply not feeling as inspired as I did yesterday. I forced about five hundreds words out today, of which perhaps three or four are good. But that’s okay. The point now is simply to get words written so that when I present the campaign setting to the players in two weeks, they’ll have some background. Quality work will be expected as some point, of course. After all, Evilpheemy and I plan to sell this product to someone at some point.

But today wasn’t a waste. I read a lot. Jennifer and I rode our bikes about four miles down the county roads. I read some more. We watched an old episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I read some more. I surfed the web and thought about writing.

But the muse just didn’t feel like talking today. Some days, the muse can’t keep her gob shut; and some days, you have to strangle the words out of her one by one. And far too often when she’s running off at the mouth, you find that what she’s inspired you to write is just plain excrement and needs to be reworked — usually on a day when she isn’t available.

While I was working out the other day, I read a magazine article about photographer David Robertson, who teaches at UC Davis. The article caught my eye because I had taken a class with Dr. Robertson back in my freshman year of college, a class called "Ethics and Society", in which we students were assigned to write a credo of our beliefs and values. I still have that original document somewhere; it would be interesting to read it, since I’m sure much of what I believed and valued back then has changed significantly.

In this article, Dr. Robertson told the interviewer that much of his work was inspired by Gary Snyder. Gary Snyder is a poet (who also teaches at UC Davis), whose work, in his use of nature imagery and mythic elements, really reminds me of Robert Bly. Dr. Robertson said that Gary Snyder’s poetry reveals a universe which is "wild and imaginative" and "un-sort-out-able" by human beings.

I’m down with that. I think that I could get along pretty well with a universe which is essentially barely controlled chaos; I’ve never really believed that the universe made much sense anyhow. I think, though, that I just enjoy the idea that the universe is, at some level, essentially unordered, and that is where the surprises come from. Ideas and inspiration come from there as well; it’s the unordered, messy level of things that don’t make much sense, like dreams, and it’s where most of what goes on actually happens (this might be a clue as to why I prefer Linux to Windows: it’s vastly chaotic on a certain level, but that’s where the good stuff really is, as opposed to the neat and orderly universe of Windows). I suppose you could say that my muse is just a filtering mechanism of sorts, that goes through the bizarre stuff that happens in my subconscious and occasionally finds something worthy of notice.

I could go on about this for quite awhile, but it would probably just degenerate into some really bad poetry, and no one wants that.

At any rate, that’s why I was looking for poetry by Gary Snyder. It doesn’t explain, though, why I couldn’t get any good writing done today.

The Weather Station

Well, according to this test, I am a chaotic good elven ranger/fighter (see below for more information about that). That works for me. I’m naturally inclined to play that kind of character when I play Dungeons and Dragons anyway. Although I would probably choose a human character rather than an elven character. I just have trouble picturing myself as graceful as

Is this me?
Is this me?

Legolas in Lord of the Rings. I think most of my friends would agree that this just isn’t me.

At any rate, I was supposed to go work at the lab today, but after picking up my car at the service station, I wound up feeling inspired. So I went to Borders Books instead, and spent a good hour or two writing a short story on my Palm Pilot. Stephen King, in his introduction to the audio edition of "LT’s Theory of Pets", explains that he doesn’t always set out to write scary stories; sometimes, they just turn out that way. Likewise, the story that I wrote today, "Ten Foot Tall He Was, with Eyes of Flame", was supposed to be a cheerful little folktale about how people tend to exaggerate the physical traits of people that are important to them. Instead, it wound up being a sort of unholy marriage between Mark Twain and H. P. Lovecraft. Because of copyright concerns and the fact that I’m going to try to get this tale published, I won’t be reproducing it here; but if you want to read it, let me know.

I’ve lamented the fact that I don’t have a laptop computer anymore which is easy to disconnect from our home network and bring with me when I’m out and about. But I think I prefer working on my lowly Palm Pilot, with its spiffy keyboard. My Palm Pilot has no games which are easy to load up and distract me from my work, and it’s a lot easier to carry around. Plus, it’s simplicity itself to download whatever document I’m working on from my Palm Pilot and fix it up on my computer.

Meanwhile, I did some more back road exploration in Yolo Country today. While driving south on Mace Boulevard in Davis, I caught sight of a strange structure in the distance that looked something like a huge golf ball set atop a several-stories-tall wireframe tower. I took a left turn on Road 35, and drove a couple of miles until I was able to get close enough to the structure to see what it was. From up close, it was obvious that it was some sort of huge white sphere set atop a scaffolding tower with a staircase that led from the ground to the base of the sphere. At the base of the structure, there was a barbed wire fence and a small concrete building. On the fence itself was a sign that identified the structure as a weather radar station administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This made me happy, though I have no idea why. Actually, I do know why. Mysterious structures and unusual buildings out in the middle of nowhere are prime food for the imagination. The short story I wrote today, I think, definitely shows some "back roads" influence.

And "Ten Foot Tall He Was…" was a good break for me from "Mother Tsan-Chan". Now, maybe, I’ll be able to get back into that one.

Slow news day. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll have something more interesting to say.

The Tragedy of Traditional Cooking

I’m sitting here now and actually trying to write a short story. I haven’t tried to do any serious creative writing since NaNoWriMo back in november, and I’d forgotten how difficult it can be to get started. I had the idea for "Mother Tsan-Chan" a couple of nights ago, and spent a couple of hours sketching out the basic idea and trying to identify the obvious cliches that this story could fall into and figuring out ways around them.

Well, I identified the cliches, but not how to avoid them. So I decided I’d just sit down and write the darn thing, and trust that the characters themselves would fill me in on their motives and plans, and the story, as it almost always does, would just take care of itself.

Unfortunately, it isn’t happening. I’ve tried two separate openings now, and neither one of them has "sung" to me. This is the problem that I always have: I come up with fantastic settings and plot complications (ask anyone who has ever played in a role-playing game that I’ve run) but I have a hard time digging the stories out of them. Stephen King writes, in his excellent book On Writing, that stories are like fossils: you don’t invent them so much as you dig them up. And I believe that this is true. To extend the metaphor, these huge and fantastical settings that I create are like the badlands of Montana; I just need to figure out where to start digging.

So instead of working on "Mother Tsan-Chan" or "Incident at Mount Joyce" (the scenario I’ve promised to have done by a week from tomorrow so we can finally start play-testing Outer Darkness), I’ll kill a little time by telling you about the restaurant that Jennifer and I went to earlier this evening for dinner.

If you’re a regular reader of my wife’s journal, you know that she and I are both doing the Weight Watchers thing (I have an ulterior motive: at thirty pounds loss, we get our webserver). The Weight Watchers program involves counting "points", and the number of points in a food item is dependent on the number of calories, fat grams, fiber grams, etc., etc., that are in it. An apple is one point. A Baby Ruth bar, to my infinite remorse, is five points. Sushi is three points for four pieces of tekka maki, or four points for three pieces of California maki.

This points thing is so much easier to figure out than figuring out the calories in a single banana or piece of steak.

The number of points you get to eat in a day depends on how much you weigh. At my weight, I get to eat between 25 and 29 points per day. Plus, you can "bank" points, by eating less than your maximum in a single day, or by exercising.

And what this all really boils down to is that for the past week or so, I’ve really been craving a steak: a big hunk of dead cow, nicely broiled, medium rare, juicy and tender. And some fried prawns. Steak and shrimp. Turf and surf. Oh, yeah, can you dig it.

We have this coupon book which has coupons and entries for just about every restaurant in the valley (except for the ones that we really like, of course), so today, while I was whining to Jennifer via IM about the tremendous need I had for a steak and the horrific consequences that were likely to befall the cats if I didn’t get one soon, she suggested getting out the coupon book and finding a restaurant that might serve steak that we could eat relatively cheaply at.

So I did. I dug around and found something in Vacaville called the Creekside Cafe, featuring traditional home cooking. There was nothing in the restaurant’s entry in the coupon book which would indicate exactly what kind of traditional cooking would be served: traditional American cooking, traditional Cajun, traditional European, traditional Antarctic… But since I’m willing to go places, sight unseen and without knowing anything about the place beforehand (I’ve seen some really awful movies using this same daringness), I suggested to Jennifer that we try it. She agreed.

So we got there, and the first thing I noticed was that it’s in a strip mall, near a Raley’s supermarket, unobtrusively settled near two smaller eateries with the healthy-sounding names of Joe’s Giant Cheeseburgers and The Donut House. This didn’t bode well to me, but Jennifer, brave soldier, wasn’t quite ready to turn around and go back to Fresh Choice, so we went inside.

For a small strip-mall eatery, Creekside Cafe was packed. There were people — mostly large people, I observed — at every single table in the small restaurant. We stood waiting behind another couple for about ten minutes, which isn’t long in the grand scheme of things, I suppose. I peeked at the specials which were written on a chalkboard on the wall, and noticed that they were serving steak and shrimp (oh blessed day!) and fish and chips, and a variety of other Weight Watchers approved selections.

I also noticed that the clientele in this restaurant seemed to have the highest cell phone to person ratio of any other restaurant I’ve been to since I mistakenly ate in the financial district of Portland once last year. The difference is that while most of the people up in Portland who were dragging cell phones to the restaurants were wearing expensive suits and carrying leather suitcases and sported expensive haircuts, the people with the cellphones here wore jeans and football T-shirts, and sported long hair. There was a cell phone at every table in this restaurant, and just about all of them were being used. I imagined parents talking to children or babysitters, or people getting sporting scores, talking to mechanics at the shop, and so on. Perhaps they were network engineers walking technicians through rebuilding a client-server connection. I don’t know.

The long and the short of it is that here traditional home cooking meant good food, and lots of it. My steak and shrimp dinner come complete with homemade chicken noodle soup, a salad, the entree itself, homemade bread, and a dessert. While the salad was an obligatory sort of affair — a few desultory shreds of iceberg lettuce with a few shavings of carrot and its own volume in thousand island dressing — and the baked potato was depressingly dry and overcooked, the rest of the meal was wonderfully well done. The steak was perfectly cooked and very tender; the cocktail sauce for the shrimp was nice and spicy; and the homemade bread was warm and hearty.

I counted twenty points for the meal, just enough to consume all of the points I had left over for the day, plus the extra points I got because I had worked out earlier.

The waitress seemed disappointed that we didn’t want the dessert that came with the meal. We finally agreed that she could put our chocolate cake in a box so that we could take it home with us. She did, and we settled up our bill and left.

We worried over the cake for the length of time that it took us to drive to Mervyn’s, where we were going to buy new jeans for each of us. We each took a bite; it was wonderful cake. But we’re both trying to be good, so we knew that there was only one thing that we could do with the cake. We got to Mervyn’s, and the cake went straight into the garbage can.

Do you see why this is a tragedy? Chances are that if you don’t, I can’t possibly explain to you the sheer pain of having such wonderful food before you and not being able to finish it all.

I wonder if that was a thousand words that I just wrote there. This was my procrastination. I had planned on writing a thousand words of "Mother Tsan-Chan" tonight, but I got distracted. I suppose that, too, is tragic.

Or, perhaps, my sense of tragedy is simply oversensitive.


The other night I went to go hang out with Evilpheemy, which I don’t do as often as I wish I could. Sadly, we both have lives, which sometimes gets in the way of these things. We went and ate sushi along with his three-month-old daughter, who was amazingly well-behaved throughout the meal, and then went back to his place to shoot the breeze and ponder the creative project we’ve been trying to put together for over three years now. To his credit, Evilpheemy has been doing a lot more on this project than I have. While I was churning out 50,000 words of Unfallen for NaNoWriMo, Evilpheemy was churning out 30,000 words of Outer Darkness. But now that the novel is done, I’ll have time to churn out 50,000 words of OD. Yeah, right.

For those of you who want to know, Unfallen is a novelization of a role-playing game which I started running about two years ago, with AB, SL, Daughter-of-Midnight (wife of Evilphemmy), and Purplkat. It involved modern mages in a dark version of San Francisco, monsters, a worldwide epidemic of nightmares, and even other levels of reality. And the 50,000 words that I wrote is apparently only Part One. Somehow, a new villain showed up at the end of Part One; I let him show up just to watch what he did, and I found myself surprised that his presence helped clarify a lot of long-term plot confusions that I’d been having. The bigger challenge will be writing Parts Two and Three of this thing, since they involve traveling through time to periods of history that I know nothing about.

After visiting with Evilpheemy, I decided that I missed the old gang, so I went to the UC Davis campus where Second Progeny, a live-action role-playing game which is a spinoff of a game I once ran, was being played. It was good to see some of the friends that I hadn’t seen for a long time, and catch up with some of them. I even made a promise that I would play an occasional character in the storyteller’s new game when it begins in January. Once I had forsworn all live-action role-playing. Now it looks like I’m allowing myself to be sucked in again… but only a little bit.

What else is going on in my life these days? I took Jennifer down to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, and that was great. I know that she had a good time, and my family thinks that Jennifer is the cat’s pyjamas. I come from a smart family. Weight Watchers went to hell over Thanksgiving weekend, and I gained a couple of pounds. But life goes on.

But speaking of weight, today I went and saw my doctor for the first time in nearly ten months. Thanksgiving-related poundage aside, he was pleased with me for having lost nearly thirty pounds since the first time he’d seen me, and more pleased (as I was) that my blood pressure is starting to look like a normal person’s blood pressure. Unfortunately, I will probably have to stay on hypertension medication for quite awhile longer, but now it’s at least working.

The job hunt continues, but not very encouragingly. I’ve had exactly one interview since I got laid off, in spite of all of the resumes, the contacts, the leads that turn out to be red herrings. I remember when I was looking for work when I had first decided to make my career change; I couldn’t keep the recruiters back. Now, none of the recruiters that I worked with before have anything for me. Sign of the times, I suppose. Ah, well. I’ve decided that if this keeps up through January, I’ll take a part-time job, at least. I don’t think I’d mind that; some of the best jobs I’ve ever had were the part-time McJobs that you can’t avoid after college. I think working in the video store was best. I’m hoping that I can get that one again.

On the schooling front, I’ve been continuig to do the research for the professor in hydrology. This week I’m in the main library at UC Davis researching comparative efficacies of different rainfall simulators. And the professor has also asked me to help out in his water analysis lab as well, so this Friday I’m meeting with the graduate student that I’ll be replacing so that I can learn the ropes. That’ll be interesting.

My wife has engaged in something called "Holidailies", and she challenged me the other night to participate as well. I had to decline. While I had no doubt that I could come up with 50,000 words in November, I doubt that I could come up with a journal entry every single day of the entire month.

And that’s what’s going on in my head today. Nothing profound or even interesting.

The Hardest Cut

Jennifer dared me to participate in National Novel Writing Month, and, so, of course I signed up. Producing fifty thousand words in thirty days? What the heck? I dug out some notes on an old novel that I was planning on writing about three years ago and began to outline, but at the last minute — about 11:45 on October 31, to be exact — I decided to write something completely different instead. So I’ll be writing the novel Unfallen, which is based on a role-playing game that I ran a couple of years ago. It was one of the players from that game who suggested it. "Because I really want to know if I was my own evil twin or not!" she said.

So on Thursday I sat down and started writing Chapter One. This morning I finished it and began writing Chapter Two. So far I have about 4,000 words written. I’m almost 10% done!

The scary thing, though, is going through my old notes from the game and realizing that there’s no way I can possibly include everything that I want to in just fifty thousand words. The plot that I had developed for the game is marvelously complex, spanning several centuries and continents and with as many twists and turns as I could possibly devise (of course, I was creating the plotline for five players, and I have always had a policy when running role-playing games that every player deserves to be screwed with as much as possible). Now that I’m writing the thing up as a novel, I’m discovering that I can’t make the plot nearly as complicated and intricate as I really want to. I have to cut a lot out, and while I know it will actually be a better novel for the reduced intricacy, it still hurts. It’s like giving up your children for medical experimentation or something.

Overall, though, NaNoWriMo has been a lot of fun. So far, at least. Now I have an excuse to actually stay up late, drinking coffee until almost midnight. And my wife — on the principle of "darers go first" — is doing it with me. I’ve read chapter one of her novel, and I think it’s quite good.

On another note, I just finished reading a horror novel called Black Dawn by D. W. Stern. My tastes in general do run towards the apocalyptic, and this novel is about as apocalyptic as they come. I admit that I was disappointed in the ending; there are times when I think a novelist just gets tired of writing something, and winds up rushing the ending. Loose ends get left untied, and the narrative pace gets choppy. There were about twenty pages left to the end, and none of the major plotlines had been resolved; I had determined that this book was part one of a series, even though there was no advertising to that effect on the cover or in the summary; and, yet, the author ended the novel with no room for sequel.

On the other hand, it was a pretty well-written novel, and I admire the author for having the guts to kill off major characters before the novel is even halfway done. Many writers are reluctant to do that.

I admit that I was reluctant to read an apocalyptic novel, with the world in the state that it is currently in. Of course, I know that we’re not facing the End of the World, but anyone who knows me will attest that I’ve been a worrier since childhood (in fact, I remember going into deep denial when I was ten or so, refusing to accept that there might be a black hole at the center of our galaxy — I actually had nightmares about that). But Black Dawn was just too intriguing for me to pass up. I’m glad I read it; it wasn’t a spectacular book, but it was decent enough.

Being unemployed is a nice feeling right now. I have plenty of productive things to do while I look for a new job: plenty of reading to catch up on, plenty of writing, plenty of learning. I’m enjoying participating in the stream sampling field research. I’ve got three major creative projects going on at the moment — Unfallen, my novel for NaNoWriMo; Worlds’ End, a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that I’ll eventually be running; and Outer Darkness, a science fiction/horror role-playing game that I’ve been developing with Evilpheemy for a couple of years now.

And, of course, when I get a new job, something will have to be dropped from my list of things to do. Will it be the writing? The reading? The field research? Just like the intricacies of my novel’s plot, something will have to be cut. I only hope that my new job will be worth it.