So, I haven’t done one of these in a while. In the last months of the presidential campaign and the aftermath, well, the distraction of watching this all unfold was distracting. I had trouble writing anything but deep dystopia. I managed to create some wordage, but it was a bit of a slow stretch for three or four months.
But here I am, production ramping up again. Maybe next time something distracting befalls the world, I’ll be a little better at keeping the creative juices flowing. This little episode did a pretty good job reminding me that I’m still learning the ropes and will be until I die — which is what all the more successful people who do stuff do, I hear.
This one, of course, is inspired by the ideology-driven denial of either the human role in climate change, the actual fact the climate is changing, or both.
And of course the title is dedicated to the people around the world who take their faith as incompatible with climate change, or a round Earth, or a heliocentric solar system, or whatever other observed data they choose to disregard, thinking it opposed to their beliefs.
Of course, there are plenty of people who have some sort of faith — one of the established ones, Deism, Pandeism, animism, whatever else — who have no trouble at all accepting that what we observe about the universe is actually what we observe about the universe. And of course there are the various flavors of atheist (myself included) who just go with the data as best as we can interpret it, but can also appreciate how awesome, beautiful, and sometimes scary things like flowers, babies, galaxies, changing climates, and all kinds of other stuff are.
Paying attention to politics, I have heard (read) some of our lawmakers say things like the title of this story. Or that the oil or coal we’re mining cannot run out because a deity will restore it at our need.
Well, even if you do believe that Earth is a creation and a deity appointed humans the stewards of it, that seems pretty silly to me. Not to mention a bad way to raise a worldful of humans.
Would any of us raise a kid like that? “Hey, kiddo — this is your room. It’s yours. Go ahead and rip up the floorboards, pee in the corners, punch holes in the walls. I’ll pop by and fix everything up perfect for you again, leaving you to learn nothing but how to be a spoiled rotten brat with total contempt for the good things you have.”
That seems like an awful idea. So not only do I, as an atheist, not believe that a deity will come and save us from the consequences of our actions, I, as a father, think that would be a very poorly thought out path for a deity of any intelligence whatsoever.
So maybe more of us humans, regardless of belief system, should be worrying a bit more than we do about this planet of ours? Just a thought…
[This appeared on my Patreon page on the 22nd, a week before it appeared here. So, you know, becoming a patron is a great way to see a lot of posts early, plus you can receive free ebook copies and even signed paperbacks of stories and collections I publish!]
(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on the 10th of this month — that’s right, they get to see posts THREE DAYS EARLY. When I publish an ebook, they get a FREE copy THIRTY DAYS BEFORE NON-PATRONS CAN EVEN BUY THE THING. So you should totally support my efforts by becoming a patron. You’ll even have my very sincere thankyous because times are tough, money’s tight, and my family of five enjoys pricey things like “eating” and “having a roof over our heads.”
Enough of that, here’s the actual post you’re here to read:
I seem to like writing about writing about food. Probably because I REALLY like good food. If I had gotten my head on straight earlier in life, there’s a pretty good chance I would have ended up being a chef instead of a writer. Both careers sound good to me — though I mostly lack the patience to make it through the prep drudgery of chefdom (at least in the early career stages). Maybe in an alternate world there’s an S.A. Barton restaurant. I hope it specializes in science fiction themed food.
But I’m WAAAAY off track of what I had planned to write here today. I’ll just mention that I’ve posted on food and science fiction before, in “Eat Science Fiction” and “Eat MORE Science Fiction“, and move along.
So, I’ve got this work in progress. Like about half of my stories, it started with a title that clicked with me. I’ll be sitting around tweeting, reading, or otherwise minding my own business and all of a sudden a phrase or word will flash into my head and I’ll scramble for a pen and scrap of paper thinking, “man, I have GOT to write a story with that title.”
This time, the title was “And The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon”. I know, it’s just a nursery rhyme phrase. But this time it came to me while I was reading about machine learning and artificial intelligence.
So I had this little stub of an idea. A story about AI, and this title. The story gears started grinding away in the writers’ lobe of my brain. I sat down to try to puzzle out what to do with this thing. I picked up my pen and a pad. I stared at the blank paper for fifteen or twenty minutes — some of you may recognize this as the vital part of writing fiction that makes non writers say, “so are you ever going to start working, or what?”
DAMMIT I AM WORKING. JEEZ. SHH.
Finally I started to write. I started to write a menu for an appetizer course. Because the Dish and the Spoon suggest a kitchen, and we all know what comes out of kitchens. Delicious food.
And I like to write about food almost as much as I like eating it. A match made in heaven. So now I have a story about food and AI and a kitchen and does it really have to be a literal spoon and dish? Hmm…
…and it started to really come together in concept. I’d open and close the story with a menu card. Place a menu card in between each scene. For framing the story, for punctuation, to play with foreshadowing and tone-setting with my menu choices. Eating a meal and socializing go together all over the world, so I’ll write a story about relationships.
So now I’m fifteen hundred words into my story about AI and relationships and food. I have an AI relationship developing along with a human relationship to make the whole thing more, at the risk of becoming too repetitive here, relatable.
I’m in the middle of soup and salad now, and looking forward to the entree. I already know what dessert will be, and I think it will surprise and please the diners. Readers. Whichever.
Now, I’m sorry to say this one won’t be appearing in public for a little while. Once I finish it and bounce it off a couple of readers, I’m going to see if I can’t sell it, and I think it has a place in a new collection I’m working on. But don’t worry.
Anticipation and hunger are the best sauces a meal can have, they say.
(This post appeared on my Patreon page on 26 February 2016. They see blog posts three days early — plus, when I publish a new eBook they get a FREE .pdf copy even if I charge for it elsewhere! So you should totally become a patron. Not only will I appreciate it, but my wife and three children will appreciate it too. New patrons cheer me up, give me a fresh shot of no, really, this writing thing will support us some day optimism. And that inspires me to write more, which is a good thing. Daddy gets crabby when he’s feeling pessimistic and the writing won’t flow.)
I think the general inspiration for this one is pretty obvious. There have long been unpaid internships in various fields, but there has been an explosion of them, and other unpaid work, of late.
“Exposure” is the coin offered especially to people who work in the various arts. I say “coin” but we all know how much exposure is really worth: pretty much zero. It’s a lottery ticket, basically — hey, write for HuffPo (yes, I mean to pick on them because they sure as hell pull down enough profit to pay contributors, though they are far from the only offenders) for nothing, and maybe someone will offer you a paying job! Maybe someone will start buying your work because they saw your name here!
And there is a pretty big population of people who just love to say, “just get a better job, you bum.” Well, that’s an easy thing to say, isn’t it? It spares the speaker from thinking, and erects a nice barrier of ignorance and not-giving-a-shit to shield them from having to consider that someone trying to make a living from the arts is an entrepreneur — something that type generally loves as long as it’s in a profession that’s respectable in their eyes, like building houses for them, fixing their cars, cooking their food, or cleaning their toilets.
But art, their thinking goes, is worthless bullshit. Some folks who should know better, like Arianna Huffington, think the same so long as the art — creative nonfiction, in the case of the website she built up and sold off for hundreds of millions of dollars — profits them instead of the creator.
That kind of dismissive and self-absorbed thinking, my friends, is the real bullshit, and it only makes it harder to become financially self-supporting as a writer or website developer or a maker of fine webcomics or videos or podcasts or whatever your creative poison is.
(Also, a coda: sometimes it’s damned hard to “get a better job,” too. Unemployment, at least in the US, is pretty damn low. But more of that employment than ever is either part-time, sans benefits, part of the app-contractor economy (think Uber and Lyft) that skirts labor laws including minimum wage, or part of the wage structure that has been losing ground to inflation pretty much every year since somewhere in the 1970s. It’s not going to get any better, either. Not only are unpaid internships and exposure markets (sounds like a sex crime, doesn’t it? But it’s not… quite) growing, but automation hasn’t even gotten properly started yet. There’s a lot of talk about it, and a lot of disagreement over just how many jobs it will ultimately take out of circulation, but look for the impact to be large over the next two or three decades. The number of “better jobs” is shrinking, and it will only shrink faster in the near future.)
(This post originally appeared on my Patreon, on 30 January 2016. You can see the post there, or see why I’m on Patreon (hint: I FIGURED OUT WHAT I WANT TO DO WHEN I GROW UP YAAAY BUT OH MONEY YEAH I DON’T HAVE MUCH OF THAT STUFF) by clicking appropriately. Here or there, thanks for reading.)
Do you write? I’m sorry to be the one telling you this, but your plot has holes. Even if you don’t write, I’m sure you’ve noticed the holes lurking in what you read and watch.
You can’t avoid them; they’re as sticky as death and taxes.
And suddenly, with that, I sense a million teachers and writers of writing cry out in anguish at this great disturbance in the authorial Force.
Hold on a minute. I’m not telling everyone that plot holes are good, fine, or even okay. Lazy writers who sighed in relief at the pronouncement that plot holes can’t be resisted, tense up again.
Plot holes are not things you should be leaving in writing – for the page or for the screen – if you can help it. You’re supposed to be looking for them and carefully stapling them shut as unobtrusively and believably as possible. That is your job as a crafter of fine writing.
What I’m telling you is that no matter how carefully you (and your editor(s)) work to find and repair plot holes, they are there. Even if you’re certain they’re not. In fact, some of the plot holes people find aren’t actually there.
Because that’s how human brains work. We sense patterns and we reflexively look for holes in them. Plots are patterns, and holes are… well, they’re holes. For millions of years our ancestors lived and died, and we still do, by our sense of pattern. The grasses of the African plains represent a pattern, and a lion stalking through them creates a hole in the pattern, a hole that moves and will eat you if you don’t notice it. The ones who were best at noticing were best at living long enough to reproduce and transport their genes into the future. The hole in the pattern in the environment that represents a fish or a deer or a rabbit or a bird or a bird’s nest filled with yummy nutritious eggs (mention sponsored by the S.A. Barton Really Likes Eggs For Breakfast And Sometimes Other Meals Too Because They’re Delicious Foundation) represents the ability not to starve, and obviously organisms that eat are better at reproducing at those that do not.
We still work that way. Misinterpreting the patterns of traffic or war or politics or finance or law can make or break a life sometimes.
We’re all about patterns. Patterns are life, and stories are patterns. We love to create them because we’re geared to appreciate them. And we love to look for the holes in them.
People even find plot holes that don’t exist in real life. Some people are certain that breaking a mirror causes bad luck, and they can explain what they’ve observed that ‘proves’ this. Others just know that the movements of the planets influence your personality and choices. There are a plethora of theories that explain the significance of number sequences in determining world events, of bumps on your head to your place in society, of the impossibility of landing on the moon, of skyscrapers constructed to collapse straight down rather than falling like dominoes collapsing straight down, even the impossibility of the Earth being a shape other than flat.
So you’re written your story. You, and perhaps some beta readers and/or editorial types have gone over them, helped you find plot holes you missed in your own process of writing and rewriting and polishing, and you’re pretty sure you’ve smoothed the holes all over.
Someone will think of something you didn’t think of. “Hey, I found a plot hole!”
Someone will see something that isn’t there at all. “Hey, I found a plot hole!”
Someone will decide that the world of your story itself should be different, or that Character X really wouldn’t do that. “Hey, I found a plot hole!”
So, if you write, do your best. Take plot holes seriously, and kill them when you find them. Mount their heads on the wall if it pleases you. But don’t obsess. If you do, you’ll start to see holes that aren’t there, and you’ll never escape the cries of “Hey, I found a plot hole!” no matter how hard you try.
So, I’ve had a presence over at Patreon for a few months now. I’ve written about how it wasn’t quite clicking for me, and what I’ve changed to make it better (please check it out, link opens in new tab) over there in more detail, but I also wanted to address it here. Because, after all, this is my site and my blog and it seemed sort of important.
My first goal as a writer is to write things that people will enjoy reading, and maybe inspire some thoughtfulness along the way.
But tied for first is my ambition to make a career out of this writing thing. A career that can support my family and me. So, crowdfunding. Patreon seemed like a better choice than others since my focus is on the long term, not a short-term project that you might see on Kickstarter or its various cousins.
My revised approach to Patreon, I think, is more interesting and more rewarding to my supporters than the old approach. The picture at the head of this post contains the core of it — show the people who support me there my work first. Even my posts here will appear there before they appear here.
I hope some of you who read here will support me there. Trust me, every penny counts. I wouldn’t be living in a trailer instead of a nice house if it didn’t.
The title story of this one was a year and a half in the writing. Isolation started as a short story. When I thought I had finished it, I sent it to my wife to see what she thought, as I always do. And she thought that the ending point was WAY too open-ended, left WAY too much unsaid. She wanted to know what happened next, and she was certain that what happened next would be interesting and important and the reader had to know what it was.
I grumbled, but I sort of saw her point, so I put the story on the back burner. And then I came back to it months later when more came to me, and it turned out that she was right. A 5,000 word story, in bits and parts over the course of more months, turned into a 20,000 word story. And the ending was still open-ended, but this time both I and my wife were okay with that.
Back in February 2014, nearly a year ago now, I posted an excerpt from That’s All, a story about a man vaulted from the edge of homelessness into reality-show stardom in a future where television and movies include “emotional tracks” that transmit the emotions of the actors to the audience. I have 15,000 words of that one down, and I think that maybe it wants to be a novel — which would be cool, I haven’t written one of those yet. But I still don’t know what happens next. I have some ideas, but none of them are really resonating strongly with me so far. I re-read it every month or two and think about it. That’s how I operate, sometimes. Some stories come to me all in a rush. Others take time. More time that I’d like.
The prevailing advice to writers is, write the story no matter what. Make it happen. Bull ahead, write crap, then edit it like a demon and chop it to pieces. And from those pieces, you will assemble your story.
That’s just not how I work. I don’t like writing things when I don’t know where they’re headed. I don’t need an outline; when I do one, it’s skeletal at best. I tend to write organically. But I need to have a destination in my head, no matter if I discard it after a thousand words because things have changed as I have written.
Don’t get me wrong, I do benefit from sitting down and writing when I don’t feel like writing or when I don’t know what happens next. But some stories, for me, just need to marinate for a while. Sometimes for months. Maybe a year or two.
This writing thing is an art, not a science. Maybe my feelings on stories are wrong sometimes, and maybe they’re right. This is an uncertain pursuit, drawing stuff out of a human imagination. We all need to take our chances, follow our feelings, push ourselves to finish work…
…but we also need to back off when we don’t know what comes next and give things time. Or, who knows, maybe you don’t, you lucky bastard. But I do. So it goes.
There’s a reason I keep a dozen projects juggling at once. It’s because I go through ebbs and flows on any one project, and I need other things to go work on while another stalls. To produce writing, I have to have some grasp on how, personally, I work as a creator. And this is just how I work. So it goes.
Sometimes, this means I post an excerpt from a piece of writing and a year later I’m no closer to completion than I was before. I don’t really like doing that, because I like to follow through with my readers. I don’t like to tease what’s not happening soon. And I have come to hesitate to post work in progress because of that, which, today, I have realized is a shame. I like to share, and I think you like to read. Why shouldn’t we share some work in progress, even if its future is uncertain? Hell, everything is uncertain. EVERYTHING. A black hole could swoop in and eat us all tomorrow, or something.
But again, so it goes.
A criticism of stories we often see is something in the vein of “this is too unlikely.” The reader finds the story ridiculous, outlandish, contrived, unrealistic, impossible, or other things the thesaurus might suggest that mean that the reader doesn’t think such events could occur, even if the story itself is fantasy or science fiction or otherwise involving things that aren’t real in the here and now.
It’s very easy for a writer to find him/herself in the position of writing about things that seem less likely than hitting the Powerball grand prize every week for a month. Setting traditional genre divisions aside, writing about unusual events is a major genre and we’ve all read those stories. A hobbit just happens to stumble upon an ancient ring of power in a dark cave, that sort of thing. It’s a valid storytelling choice; you’re not wrong as a writer if you write about an event that really would be about as likely as being run down by a rampaging zebra in the middle of Siberia.
The trick is, of course, suspension of disbelief. If you’re going to write about stuff like that, you need to do it in a way that invites the reader to look away from the unlikely place because they enjoy the story more than they’d enjoy pointing and saying, “look at how silly this really is!” Consider that Bilbo finding the ring in that dark cave was as unlikely as that zebra showing up in Siberia right when and where you are. Consider that people have pointed out how unlikely that was. And consider how few people really give a damn even as they acknowledge that yes, it really was a ridiculously huge coincidence if you think about it. Saying ‘the ring is a powerful magical artifact and wanted to be found’ is an awfully thin veil for it, especially if you consider that it was already as mobile as it wanted to be with Gollum, if it had such wanting-to-be-found influence.
But we, as readers, don’t really care. Because it’s a damn good story. Tell a damn good story and you can get away with making it an unlikely one… as long as you don’t overdo it. Even Tolkien couldn’t have gotten away with putting a coincidence like the one we’re talking about in every chapter.
The upside of having an eclectic vision, or, put another way, of being a scatterbrain: variety! I love variety in just about everything. Music, food, my reading, my writing. The downside: lack of focus. Focus has its advantages. It’s easier to finish things when you’re focused. Finishing stories can be a struggle for me. I tend to get interested in something else and wander away. If I didn’t make myself go back and finish, I could easily have a couple of hundred story fragments and nothing done. As the hoary old chestnut goes, starting things is easy, but as time goes on… SQUIRREL! Look at the squirrel over there! Wait, there’s something shiny the other direction, wonder what it is… hey, I’m hungry, are you hungry? Wonder what sort of snacks are available…
Today’s thoughts of the ups and downs of eclecticism came to me while updating my ‘stories to either resubmit to markets or self-publish if I’m tired of sending them back out’ stack. Right now the stack stands at five; I don’t like it to get much larger than that. Stories sitting around on my hard drive doing nothing are, well, doing nothing. And that’s just not helpful. They’re an eclectic lot. Let’s take a look at what I have here, using 1-word shorthand for titles, since I haven’t sold or released any of them yet:
Kitty: Near-future. Speculative fiction, just barely. If it wasn’t set in the near future, it would be a mainstream story and it reads like one. A tale of a boy and his cat in an impoverished coastal North Carolina ravaged by severe sea-level rise and powerful climate-change-fueled storms.
Meow: Call this one contemporary fantasy. A Cat of Power awakes after a long sleep frozen in Siberian permafrost and tries to make sense of what the world has become. Two cat stories in the lot is as close as I come to a theme in this list. I do like a good cat story. I blame the internet’s bad influence.
Dawn: Definitely science fiction, there are spaceships and everything. The participants in a long-distance relationship meet via interstellar travel. As usual in a long-distance relationship story, there’s something unsaid that must be confronted once they meet.
Pornodroid: Science fiction, again with spaceships and everything. Not as sexy as it sounds. A pop music star under a very onerous contract discovers that stardom ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, and finds a high-tech way to attempt an escape.
Fire: A 100-word western involving a lost Spaniard, a nasty bearded brigand, and a campfire.
Maybe it would be a little easier to attract readers if I stuck to one thing. On the other hand, I can’t be the only one who enjoys variety. And frankly, if I tried to compress myself into a branding-marketing straitjacket and keep everything focused, I have a feeling that the writing I produced would rapidly start to suck. I’m happy being a bit scatterbrained. My mind is a restless dog, sticking its nose into every corner and smelling after new and exciting smells. If I tried to chain it down it would rapidly become unhappy and you’d get tired of hearing it bark all the time.