Yesterday was wonderful. Mid 60’s, a slight breeze, and sunny. I spent some time and hiked on one of the trails they don’t want you to use (it crosses live railroad track) and sat on a stump watching geese swoop in and land in a bog.
The weather folks said it’d be a beautiful weekend, so I started the day in shorts. I was to be greatly disappointed. Now it’s in the 50s, windy, overcast, and it just started to rain.
It’s a good thing I’ll be in New Orleans in just a little over a week. This crap’s getting tedious.
I spent a good chunk of 1992 and 1993 in Boston. Since then, I’ve been back a dozen times or so and have never been bored. I had something of a love-hate relationship with the city at the time, since I was sent on a challenging project and my family couldn’t come with me. But my time there wore a soft spot into my head (maybe I need to get looked at) for New England and its people. When I heard about the bombing, my first thought was along the lines of one of those high-strung businessmen finally snapped. My second one was: Whoo-they picked the wrong city to dick with.
I’m from rural Nebraska. It’s about as different from the tight-packed, oddly-laid-out, in your face city that Boston is. It took some getting used to, from driving (never use your turn signal—it’s giving your battle plans away to the enemy), to navigation (after 3 or 4 months there, my epiphany was it’s better to visualize downtown as round and not square), to the people.
And it’s those same people that have caused the nationwide reaction that’s happened over the last two weeks. They’re unique. Forward. And unabashedly proud of where they’re from. If you don’t want to come see Boston for yourself, t’ hell widya—they don’t need you to like it, and if you never visit it’s no issue to them. But go visit, and a million proud hosts are more than happy to tell you where to find the $10 lobster (I’d assume that since the early 90’s ten-buck lobster isn’t quite as easy to find—or desirable), that it’s not so hard to find what you’re looking for (beah right at the flashin’ red, go ‘nothah three blocks and it’s right theah), and—you know what, maybe you shouldn’t drive, hop in wid’ me.
So here’s to you, Boston. I wasn’t worried for you since I know you’re home to some of the toughest, scrappiest sonsabitches America can be proud to call her own. And while New York may get your goat from time to time, remember that you’re the ones who kicked the Redcoats out of our fledgling country—and that Manhattan served as their headquarters for most of the Revolution.
Five Things I’ve Always Loved About Boston
Food? I Gotcha Food!
Everybody ordered the Nicky Special at Pete’s Dockside, but I always looked forward to breakfast there. A classic ‘Ma and Pa’ joint in the first floor of the building that, though most of it was a warehouse, served as our office, Pete’s was framed into the loading dock that still saw heavy use.
With the boys behind the grill and Pa ringing up the register (“That’ll be six hundred seventy five dollars,” he’d say, but that was alright, since an Abe Lincoln was five hundred) I learned through observation that English Muffins are way better when smeared with butter and tossed on a flattop grill, and burgers only taste like burgers if they’re cooked en masse. If it wasn’t for Pete’s, I’d have starved to death.
If you wanted to get away from the chaos of the city, without sitting in traffic for a couple of hours, you could go down to South Boston (I felt like apologizing for only being half Irish whenever I’d go there) and hang out at Marine Park and Castle Island. Cool old Fort there—and you know I love my old-school fortifications—as well as a nice close-up view of the underbellies of some really big aircraft. Yeah, it’s in the flight path of Logan, but I like seeing jets up close and personal in operation.
Speaking of old structures, how could I forget:
All the Historic Stuff
My first Freedom Trail experience wasn’t marred by my first East Coast beggar experience. Or my second. Or third. After the first dozen people begging you for a buck, you hardly even notice them. And they’re not belligerent if you ignore them, like the bums in San Francisco get. Or maybe I just happened to be given the beginner’s hobos. Whether it was the 400-year-old cemetery, or the Old North Church, or dozens of other places I’d read about in the history books, someone who likes to immerse themselves in the past like I do usually runs out of leg power before they’ll run out of stuff to see.
My bills would always say “Sheraton Tara Newton, Astride the Mass Turnpike”. My company certainly wasn’t going to pay to put me up in the Parker House. Or the waterfront, for that matter. Instead we’d have to get on the Mass Pike where it started by South Station (This was before the Ted Williams Tunnel, of course) and drive the 20 minutes and two toll booths out to Newton. Or Watertown, which was just to the north. And every night I’d go to sleep knowing cars were zipping below me at seventy miles an hour.
Another nice feature of the hotel was its pool, which was on one of the middle floors. You could swim over to the side and watch the traffic under you.
And, come to think of it, I had my first deep fried cheese sticks there. Thanks a lot, guys—that probably had a lot to do with me pushing 240 by my late twenties.
So I was driving downtown with my work pal John. He wanted to go see the Bell In Hand Tavern, what with Cheers still being on and all—even if it was with Kirstie Alley, who never seemed to be as good of a fit as Shelley Whatserbucket…or maybe that was because it was never the same after Coach died. We were on a one-way street, somewhere southeast of the Common (but by this time I’d adjusted to a radial way of thinking about the town layout, so I didn’t think in terms of compass directions) when all of a sudden a fire truck is in our grille—almost literally—honking as only a fire truck can. I calmly screeched the tires and banged over the curb and onto the sidewalk to accommodate it, and luckily there must have been a really good fire going on because they didn’t stop to chew us out.
I muttered about my bad choice of ten-foot-wide street, and considered flipping off the cars that were following the fire truck, apparently taking advantage of an emergency vehicle blocker to break the law and shorten their commute.
I managed to get off the sidewalk without hitting a sign and at the next intersection John pointed out that we’d just been driving down a one-way street: the wrong way.
I didn’t screw up. We were on a one-way street going the right way, and suddenly without warning it had flipped directions. Maybe there was a Do Not Enter Sign, maybe not. All I know is, at the next cross-street I turned right. Onto a street that I knew we were just on…three blocks behind us.
You ever read Crouch End by Stephen King? I know it’s set in London, but I also know he likes to spend a lot of time in Boston. I think he came up with the idea there, where the fire truck nearly plowed us over.
Artificial Intelligence can put me out of a job. If I live long enough, of course—this won’t happen next week. But it doesn't matter if I'm talking about technical writing or fiction. Or my other computer-related skills.
Are the days of writers numbered? We'd like to think not.
But consider for a moment the perfect combination of processors and code put to the task of creating stories for people. It's not completely psycho, if you consider how far technology's come in the past few decades.
Imagine the Virtual Writer, constructed around the Formula, pegging the protagonist’s character arc from Fat, Dumb, and Happy through life-changing event and epiphany, clear past the zenith of the antagonist’s power and the discovery of the inner power to defeat him. With just enough randomness built in to ensure these plot milestones don’t come at mathematically precise quarter-points.
“A machine can’t make me love its writing,” you’ll say. “My tastes are far too sophisticated.”
And an infinity of monkeys banging the keys of an infinity of typewriters for an infinity of days will eventually generate the works of Shakespeare.
Maybe that’s the key: have a program that generates an infinity of stories until a great one emerges. But humans would have to do the reading and judge what is and isn’t phenomenal writing, correct? At first, I suppose. But story-analysis programs already exist. They’ll get more sophisticated.
Think hard: what job is out there that machines can’t replace? CG movies won’t always need human programmers, or even the voice actors. The grandsons and granddaughters of Siri and Google Translate’s algorithms will take over.
In the end, I foresee only one thing humans will be able to do for a living: Influence other humans in person. That’s right: the reason I’m convinced we’ll never be able to get rid of politicians and lawyers—arguably the top two on most people’s lists for elimination if they ran the world—is that they’re two of the few professions machines won’t obviate.
Where does that leave us? Perhaps we’ll finally achieve that utopia where nobody has to work and everybody has what they need. Call me pessimistic, but I’d consider that the least likely outcome.
Here’s a thought: people run out of work. They run out of stuff to do—while indulging in hobbies will be nice for many, the fact that machines will have done what they liked—only better—means a lack of audience for work, and those who can’t create solely for their own amusement will lose interest. The machines won’t of course, cranking out profound masterpiece after profound masterpiece.
Where does that leave us? Maybe everybody goes back to what we used to do before all this technology got started: Hunt and gather. Living like cavemen in a world where the machines, who never needed us but don’t feel any particular malice or affection toward their creators, continue advancing modern technology without us.
The good part about finishing a project is that sense of accomplishment, and finding out how the story ended. The bad part? Figuring out what comes next. Start something new? Pick up a half-completed work that I ditched before?
There are things that a writer must do without writing, of course. Editing previously completed work—obviously, not what I just finished, that wouldn’t work out well—has to be done before I’d let any work see the light of day.
And then, of course, I need to find a home for the pieces that I’ve written, edited, re-edited, read to the writers’ group, re-re-edited…you get the picture. Self-publishing is great, but I believe in having a balance. If you don’t still put yourself out there for rejection, still make yourself pass the occasional gatekeeper, your work suffers as a result. So, a little research is called for.
The best part about research? It involves discovering new sites and reading new stories from writers I haven’t had a chance to read before. What could beat that?
Let’s talk a bit about dramatic license and suspension of disbelief.
In the evenings, I go for a walk. In the Canadian half of my existence, this means exiting my building through the back door and taking the echoey sidewalk between adjacent parking garages. This path is a bit claustrophobic, and every time it snows it reveals how many dogs my neighbors own—and that my neighbors don’t let their dogs do their business indoors. This walkway emerges into a small grassy patch and a pedestrian bridge that crosses the old mill race. On the other side is our three-block stretch of classic small-town Main Street.
Let’s say you come with me on one of those walks. I breathe a sigh of relief as we enter that narrow passage, because it’s unseasonably warm and yesterday’s miserable just-above-freezing rain has erased all that yellow snow. Maybe we’re talking about the half-price fish and chips at the Ivy Arms, and I’m telling you how how well it goes with a frosty pint of Innis & Gunn. Right about the time you were going to tell me you’ve never even heard of Innis & Gunn, we emerge from the walkway and the words freeze in your throat.
There’s a tiger standing there.
It turns its head, way bigger than you remember from Animal Planet or your last visit to the zoo, because dammit, every other time in your life that you’ve ever seen a tiger, there’s been some kind of glass between you and it.
The first thought in your head is going to be: “I’m about to get eaten.” Well, actually, it’s probably more along the lines of this, but they mean roughly the same thing.
Our brains came pre-loaded with that kind of programming to prevent our being eaten by large predators, so your reaction wouldn’t be unreasonable. But here’s one of those differences between real life and entertainment: if that tiger has eaten recently—and if it’s a living tiger, it spends two-thirds of its life having eaten recently—it’s probably going to look at us, quickly conclude that we’re not other tigers (and that we’re not running and thus worth chasing for the heck of it), and go back to whatever it was doing before it saw us.
Anybody older than 20 remembers Jurassic Park. That opening scene where Sam Neill freaks a kid out by describing how a velociraptor could cross a football field in two seconds to tear him open like a paper bag full of tootsie rolls.
All of the Jurassic Park movies (meh, I doubt I’ve seen more than 1 1/2 of the sequels) all perpetuate the image of velociraptors as constant hunters who never sleep or poo and spend all day killing things in increasingly creative ways. Unless they have the misfortune of being targeted by an even bigger predator, who, of course, spends all its time figuring out ways to kill every living creature within a sixty-mile radius.
Big fangy dinosaurs present instant jeopardy for a character. Confronting a reptilian creature that’s bigger than a human, can out-accelerate a Ferrari, and has six-inch scimitars for claws, allows you to skip all that boring exposition about how your character is in trouble because these things are dangerous.
But people have tigers for pets. You could, assuming all that wild DNA-from-Mosquitoes stuff could be figured out, have a velociraptor for a pet. The whole time, people would consider you at worst a bit mentally unbalanced, at best a little…different. As long as your velociraptor had a full stomach, it probably wouldn’t eat you. Just remember not to make any sudden moves, or to run or in any other way trigger its chasing instinct.
In writing, you can always get away with using an apex predator to introduce an element of danger into a character’s life. It’s a great way to suddenly shake things up a bit. And your reader will be more than happy to skip rational questions such as “But has it eaten recently?” and “People and predators often live side-by-side without incident.”
Of course, tigers do sometimes eat people. But thanks to this interesting article, we see that our scenario in that clearing by the mill race will probably turn out okay. If you’re going to get attacked by a tiger, you probably wouldn’t see it coming.
Writers get their inspiration from many sources. Music is a common one. I’d imagine a lot of writers use classical music, and not just because it’s snooty-cultured: there aren’t any lyrics to symphonies, and songs you want to sing along to are horrible for writing productivity. Also, classical songs, especially entire symphonies are long. They can be relegated to the background so the productive parts of the brain don’t get caught up in it.
I’ve tried it: it works okay for me. But if I truly need a burst of productivity, there’s one go-to album on my iPod:
Strangely enough, when I first bought it, I listened to some of the songs here and there, but besides Iron Tusk, which was probably the best known song on it, I didn’t immediately get into it. It wasn’t until I wanted to have some background music to a writing session in my corner office in the historic main street building that it all came together. There was some sort of harmonic fit between the old, empty warehouse floor, my fingers clattering laptop keys, and the music.
It’s got what I’d must mentioned about classical music: the songs aren’t 3-minute pop tunes. There’s a lot going on musically. The lyrics are there, but if you want to know what Brent and Troy are singing (Actually, I think it’s more Troy than Brent on this one) you have to concentrate…and if you don’t concentrate, they mix in with everything else.
Oh, and it kinda kicks ass. Kind of a ton.
There are, of course, some situations where I can’t plug this in. Usually I don’t want to listen to Marshall-flamed guitar sounds over double-kick drumming when I’m writing a contemplative piece, or a love scene—oh, wait, I don’t do love scenes—or a touchy-feely passage.
But if someone needs to get in a fight, or there’s some shooting, or a character we want to make it to the end is dangling from a one-handed grip on slick, ice-cold metal over a twenty-story drop onto jagged rocks crawling with alligators, this is the CD to listen to.
Extra bonus, which I didn’t know until recently: Neil Fallon did some guest vocals on Blood and Thunder, the opening track. That’s like taking two strips of peppered, thick-cut bacon and sprinkling it on top of a pound of regular bacon. Served on a plate of bacon!
It’s not because it’s a bad story. It’s pretty good. The dialogue in it is great…I can say this without any shame at my lack of humility because, most likely, you’ll never see it.
You might gather, from the title of the post, that I’m scrapping the story because the characters in it aren’t acting like the characters in it. No, they’re behaving just like I’d expect them to (after all, I mentioned the dialogue is great).
But it’s not them. It’s me.
You see, this is part of a series of other short stories (oh, you want to know which ones? Why, pay a visit right here and find out.) The other ones are meant to be action-oriented. You know, stuff happening, people of multiple species shooting at each other, chilling monsters, that sort of thing.
So far my current story is dialog-heavy. Not a shot has been fired.
The worst part? I can’t just swap in different names and places and expect the story to work. It’s written for the characters. It just doesn’t go without them.
The only thing worse than scrapping this story? Going ahead with it. You see, I don’t want to dump something that doesn’t fit with the other two. Even if it’s good, if people expect something with a lot of shooting and they don’t get it…let’s just say the reaction is similar to a room full of frat boys watching an ‘R’ rated movie, only to discover it got that rating because it shows drug use and two dudes making out.
Now, if I had a series of dialog-heavy, snappy-dialogue stories, and stuck one in with a bunch of shooting, I could probably get away with it. Since I put the first story in the series out a couple of years ago, it’s a little late to switch things around.
Oh, well. Like all of the other stories I either dump or put on the shelf, it’s still practice.
As a certified US-American* I almost dread going home right now. You know why. Can we just have election day happen, already? We’ve been subjected to the an endless stream of crap for somewhere around two years—a stream whose flow only ratcheted up with each passing day. Do any of you even think the presidential debates have a point? Please, I’d love to hear from one undecided voter who’s watching these things in an effort to make up their mind.
I probably won’t. Such people might have missed the debate last night after getting hung up in the drugstore, taking six hours to settle on which brand and flavor of toothpaste to get.
So, as an expat spending most of my time lately in the Greater Toronto Area, I’ve got to thank Dalton McGuinty. That’s the dapper fellow to the right, fellow Yanks. He resigned unexpectedly from being Ontario’s Premier, kinda like a governor for a province. Uh, which is like a Canadian state. Did you really have to sleep through Social Studies every day in school?
My Canadian friends realize I’m jabbing their recently self-lame-ducked Premier, sticking him on the right of this post. He’s with the Liberal party, you see. But I digress.
Not only did my man decide he’s stepping down…eventually, because it’ll take a few months to find a replacement, and he can keep doing the job for as long as that takes, but he decided to—pardon me if I misspell it—prorouge the Ontario parliament.
Mmmmm…pier—oh, no, not the food. Prorogue. That means he just did to the legislators—2/3rds of whom are with rival parties—what the NHL owners are doing to their players. He locked the doors and won’t let them sit in the big room with the long benches that face each other. Most likely, there’s a team of Obama advisors busy rifling through dusty law books right now trying to see if there’s anything like that on the US side of the border.
And that means the local TV and radio news, as well as the papers, magazines, what have you, are all talking about that. And not the endless, vomitous mass that is the US presidential election.
I ignored the debates, myself. that’s because my guy wasn’t allowed in. Because the Democrats and Republicans have a cartel and don’t want to share power with a third party. Really, the only purpose the debates serve is theatre for partisans. People watching are hoping their candid
ate skewers the other guy—the enemy—on national TV. Depending on who you talk to, each guy won.
The only thing worse?
Movies portraying national politics as something any decent human being would want to do.
*Jim Rome Clones should get the reference. Or Miss Teen USA followers.
On a flight from Omaha to Minneapolis yesterday, I had the good fortune of sitting next to another writer. It took me a while to figure this out; I’m not a nosy feller, after all. But somewhere over…oh, who knows, maybe Sioux City, I recognized the cadence of her notebook scratching. It had a familiarity to it: pauses followed by furious penstrokes.
Eventually I asked her how much first-drafting she did longhand, and we struck up a conversation.
When it comes to being motivated to write, sometimes the best thing a writer can do is to talk to another writer. Or, to turn the idea on its head, the worst thing a writer can do is to isolate themselves from other writers. When one hits a certain point in their career where they think they could make writing financially viable, this is a particularly insidious risk: suddenly, other writers are the competition. There are a limited number of eyeballs out there, the thinking goes, and if they’re on another person’s work, they’re not on mine.
The fallacy of such thinking revealed itself fairly early in our conversation. She was working on a middle-grade novel, something between Kids and Young Adult. In other words, her eyeballs ain’t my eyeballs. There are as many interests in the writer community as there are writers, it would seem. Even the members of my writers’ workshop who write some of the same genres I do don’t write all of them. And they don’t go about it the same way.
Besides, even if she was another Action/Sci-Fi/Fantasy divided writer, so what? The vast pool of uncommitted eyeballs generally go to writers who, in keeping with the theme of this, wouldn’t be flying coach. In other words, we’d still have been on the same team.
So, it was nice to talk to another writer, to share experiences, challenges, and—probably any writer who’s serious about this business can agree—to lament how much writing time life seems to steal away. And, sure enough, once I found the connection to Toronto, I sat down, fired up my computer (I don’t do a lot of my first-draft work longhand) and added a good chunk to a short story I’ve been kicking about for a while.
So thank you, fellow writing traveler. Though she hasn’t set up her own website yet, you can visit her blog at BeingBelly. You can tell her I sent you – and encourage her to finish editing that novel.