Writing Journal 10.6.2019: Keeping busy just a little more than before, and that’s OK

This is going to be a pretty brief entry.

There’s not too many writing updates from last week. I think I was writing steadily this week, just a few fewer words than the previous week, but except for one day that I just took off, there was some good work in there.

No special reports on projects, although I did do a bit of planning on Project F (my original fantasy project) using Wonderdraft. I have to admit that I have not read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy-specific advice about writing, even though these genres have been part of my reading life ever since the beginning. One of my personal observations is that once you create a world and can see it, certain things can suggest themselves to you, like how people live, what political structures might exist, and so on. I keep saying that I need to do a review of Wonderdraft and I’m getting closer to actually doing it. It’s a fantastic tool that I think I will keep using for planning purposes, especially any other sci-fi and-or fantasy projects I tackle.

OK, the stats are below. Have a good writing week, everyone.

+8,210 words written.

Days writing: 6 of 7.

Days revising/planning: 2 of 7 for 150 total minutes.

Daily Writing Goals Met (500+ words or 30 minutes of planning/revisions): 6 of 7 days.


A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 4: Falling in and Out of Love With Technothrillers

Normally I always include some sort of image on these stories, even if it’s one of the those boring landscape images of eastern Iowa or those shots of my writing desk. 🙂

Oftentimes, if I’m talking about a particular author I like, I’ll usually take a photo of the book cover of an author I’ve read to illustrate a post. I tend to want to avoid copyright issues – although I think I’m covered by fair use rules. Today, however, I wasn’t able to do that. There’s a story behind that, and part of this section of the writing biography.

As a kid, I was obsessed over reading about the military and about military equipment. When my family and I had a chance to travel to Washington DC, the one place I had to visit was the National Air and Space Museum. It absolutely dovetailed with my existing interests in science fiction and space travel (the sci-fi obsession I’ve touched on before, although I’ll probably go into more detail in a later post). Anyway, all of these interests in cool vehicles that made things go boom, the technologies that made them possible and their sci-fi possibilities, and the strategies and tactics that involved their use, all converged in a big obsession tornado in my pre-adolescent mind.

It was right around this time that The Hunt for Red October hit the shelves. I don’t recall when I first read it, but it had to be sometime after it came out in paperback because I read it in the paperback format.

The minute I started to read it, it hooked me in. Why? Like I said, I was a military tech faddist back then, and Tom Clancy knew his stuff. Not just the amount of detail about the American military and its technology, but what he knew about how the Soviet Union and its military and navy worked. A few years later, I was amazed to learn that Clancy had never even served in the military, and the book was a result of something like five years of research while he worked at an insurance agency.

(This was a great inspiration for me to see that you could write intelligently about anything, regardless of your life experience, as long as you did your research. For years I had wanted to write a novel about soccer, but I believed that I didn’t have enough life experience or background knowledge to write about it and not sound stupid. A few years of reading about the history and business of soccer and intense soccer fandom, and I’ve finally gotten started on that project.)

The pace and the structure of the novel was also highly influential to me, as well. I’d often heard of unfilmable books and books that were not able to translate into a visual format. But when I read October, I read a book that could have been assembled on a Hollywood film storyboard. Clancy was telling a large story with a lot of moving parts, different characters, and different locations. The way he shifted perspectives and moved where the action was fascinated me, took me along for the ride. In years since, I’ve often talked with writing students about how deciding to move to a new paragraph or section works in the same way as a film director deciding to change a camera angle or location. Reading October and seeing how Clancy did this was the first time I really started to “see” how that worked. (I learned from Andrew Vachss about how you can keep chapters as short or as long as you wanted to, but that’s another tale.)

As with most obsessions, this one expanded. By my count, I’ve read at least a dozen of the novels that he has put out, and maybe a few of those that were put out by Zombie Tom Clancy, when other authors write books under Clancy’s name. (Entertainment Weekly had a good article on the practice here; I just wonder how these guys manage to get the gig. It sounds like easy money to be honest.) At some point, I had as many as four of his books in my personal collection, and some by a couple of other authors with similar styles, like Vince Flynn.

Now, however, my shelves are bare of Clancy, Flynn, or any of their like. (That’s why I needed the Internet to find my art today.) What happened? Essentially, I got tired of the guy’s politics. (I try to avoid politics on this page – I’d probably consider myself a socialist if I had to define myself – but since it fits in with how I feel about a writer, I think I needed to get into it.)

More and more as he wrote later in his career, all of this stupid conservative beliefs started bleeding out into his books. There was his blind faith in the military and military leaders, little acknowledgement that government needs to act transparently, an outdated view of women and reproductive issues, and a blind faith in market and libertarian solutions to problems. There were just a lot of ideas that were both wrong and gross to me. It started getting bad around Executive Orders and just kept getting worse from there.

All I wanted to do is read the action, but all I could see in those later books were stupid political ideas. For the first time, how I felt about the way the world should work clashed directly with authors I enjoyed. I’ve heard many say that they can separate the author from their personal views. I can’t however. There’s simply too many authors out there that I can read and that have reasonable political or personal views that I don’t believe I have to compromise myself in that way.

The truth is, how you feel about society and personal opinions does affect what you write. For example, the main characters in books by Clancy, Flynn, and others were alpha males for whom finding the right guy and guilty party was easy and the way to solve almost any geopolitical problem involved bullets and explosives. I never saw Jack Ryan or Mitch Rapp from Flynn’s series catch the wrong guy and kill or torture them, or see them accidentally kill a whole flock of civilians. But that does happen, because I see that happen every day. Since those authors were so fascinated by the military or military solutions, it eventually eroded their credibility to me as a reader. I’ve always said that ideology is how you wish the world would work if only humans weren’t the way that they were. If someone has an ideology that’s too stupid for me to buy into, I have no interest and taking a tour of that author’s head by reading a book.

EDIT: Since I wrote this, apparently they are adapting the Mitch Rapp character for a film, American Assassin, based on one of the Rapp novels from 2010. I’ve seen some preview clips and I have to admit I’m more than a little intrigued. The kid they have playing him, Dylan O’Brian, seems to be willing to show how damaged such a person like Rapp would have to be to be the person he is, rather than going the full 80’s action flick guy he seemed to be in the books. Now I might have to watch it on Netflix.

So, Tom Clancy became a teacher for me as both how to and how not to write books. He is nowhere near the last one of those I have run into as a reader. To paraphrase Stephen King, you can learn something from both the great writers and the terrible writers.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’m starting to tag and headline these writing biography posts as either Volume I or Volume II. Volume I are biographical reading and writing posts about things I first encountered as a kid or young adult. Volume II will touch on stories taking place in my adulthood since then. Hope you enjoy both, because I believe I will start doing both Volume I and Volume II stories simultaneously as we go along. I’ve also retroactively re-titled those previous Bio posts to reflect those changes, but that won’t affect their URLs.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 2: Building Worlds.

By the time I was in middle school, I was voraciously absorbing every single book that interested me and that I could get my hands on. I lived, and lived now, in a Mississippi River town in Iowa with the unique First Nations-based name of Muscatine. By the time I had entered high school, I had raided my grade school, middle school, high school, and public libraries for whatever hidden treasures I could find.

One of the things I realized that there were so many delights – maybe delights adults would have preferred I not see – in those libraries. (I’ll likely go into more detail in another post – but it’s fair to say that I was one of those who scanned the banned book lists in search of reading material.)

Over the course of a childhood, I would find many of those and many others. It was… what, my escape? What did I really have to escape from? I didn’t face any poverty; I had no siblings to compete with for attention; I was coddled and loved with no reservations; my parents were loving and remain together even today. Whatever was left was an awkwardness with people and an isolation from my peers that was both self-inflicted and suggested by more popular peers. To this day, one of the things that I am happy with about my children is that they are better social beings than I ever was or am.

Regardless of whether my problems were either morally dire or simply First World Problems, I retreated more than a little bit into the world of books. Maybe my parents sensed that when they got me an entire encyclopedia set when I was around 10 and I could spend an entire day pulling out the two “S” volumes and seeing what I could learn about that particular day. (Of course, that would have been unnecessary if Wikipedia had existed when I was young. If it had, I have a feeling I would have been addicted to the “random article” link on that page.)

As I mentioned before, some of the links of my personal biography have many holes, or areas where the fog of time covers my personal timeline. Despite that fog, I have the distinct impression that it was somewhere between the eighth and ninth grade that I ran across Dune by Frank Herbert.

I first became aware of the book right around the time that David Lynch’s adaptation came out in theaters. It was considered anywhere from a flawed classic to an absolute bomb by the critics when it came out in theaters. I never had the chance to see its theatrical release, but the reports about the story (including an old Nickelodeon series staring Leonard Nimoy) were too intriguing for me to ignore. With that, I decided to find and read the book.

Well, the minute I started reading this massive tome, I got transported into an entirely different world, fam, as some of our British relations might say. (You’ll eventually learn that I happily steal phrases and slang from any culture as long as it sounds cool to me.) As I was reading, I was far away from the hot and humid river town in Iowa and transported onto a desert planet were water and how it was preserved was the key not only to survival, but to the culture itself.

What I learned from Herbert was this; the less familiar your surroundings are, the more you have to show the reader how it works. In the books that I’ve written up to this point, they have been based in the modern American world, with not too much need for explanation. But here was Herbert weaving a massive universe to amaze me – a universe so detailed he needed an 18 page or so glossary just to explain all of the terms and terminology. Some found it ponderous, but I was awed by the level of attention he gave to it. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Muad’Dib was one of the most fascinating characters I ever saw in fiction, and it was incredible how Herbert showed the creation of a legend from ordinary person to a literal messiah for his world.

I haven’t yet tried to build a fictional world as far removed from my own and as detailed as Herbert gave us in 1965. But ever since I read Dune, I knew it could be not only done but done with the highest level of craftsmanship.