You stubborn ancient knave, you reverend blog post, we’ll teach you.

There’s not a whole lot new going on this week, but one thing that is new is that I have begun work on the audio release of The Chasm and the Collision, and it’s proceeding swiftly.  The book’s chapter lengths are generally shorter than my short stories, so the audio for chapter one of CatC is going to end up around forty minutes long.  There will undoubtedly be significantly longer future chapters, but I don’t think any of them are as long as, for instance, Hole for a Heart or Ifowonco, so they’ll be coming out rather more rapidly than have my earlier audio tracks.  Also, I’ve developed increasing skill at creating the audio, and that tends to lead to greater efficiency.  Undoubtedly, I’ll continue to make mistakes, and hopefully I will continue to learn and improve over time.  We shall see.

Unanimity continues to lengthen, though its progress has been slow this week, because my motivation, or my energy level, has been poor.  This is explored in my most recent post in Iterations of Zero, which started out as a simple Facebook status, but which rapidly grew too long for efficient use of that venue.  It deals with the problems, and the ongoing and inescapable danger, of suffering from dysthymia and major depression.  I don’t know whether it’s of use to anyone or not.  Fellow sufferers may at least get some reflective value from it, I’m not sure.  Anyway, because of the problem discussed therein, I haven’t written as much this week on Unanimity as I tend to do when at my best.

This is where my ongoing, habitual commitment (which I’ve described here before) kicks in.  Even on those mornings on which I don’t feel like doing much of anything—most mornings, when it comes down to it—I tell myself, “All right, you don’t have to write much, but at least write one page.”  This is a reasonably non-daunting task, since I write very quickly once I get started, and it almost always leads me to write at least two pages, and sometimes more.  It’s easier to keep working once I’ve forced myself to get started.  In fact, it’s often hard to stop, because I don’t want to quit before I’ve reached a good pausing point, from which I’ll be able to pick up again next day, and I also want to complete whatever chain of narrative is prominent in my head that day.

A related ethic has led to the continued production of the aforementioned audio for CatC.  I committed to recording at least some of it every day, and that led rapidly to the complete recording of the chapter.  In fact, it only took two recording sessions.  Now, I’m working on the editing, which, thanks to skills I’ve developed over time, is going more quickly than it would have in the past.

I’ve tacitly decided that I’m going to do my blog series, “My heroes have always been villains,” on a once-a-month basis, on the second Thursday of each month.  If you’re looking forward to the next installment of that series, you now know when you can reliably expect it to come out; I tend to be rather compulsive about plans of that sort, barring events that make me unable to write at all.  These are always possible for anyone, and are more possible for me, given the difficulties I describe in my IoZ post, “A daily game of roulette.”  I wish I could be more optimistic about such things, but to be more optimistic about my optimism would require me to have a more optimistic starting point in the first place.  Instead, my main proactive force, the thing that keeps me pushing forward, is simply a profound and often maddening (to other people, at least) stubbornness.

With that, I think we have enough for this week.  I’ll almost certainly be posting my next audio file before the next regular blog post, and I’ll spread news of that on social media, so notification should be easy to get.  My daily writing continues, as it ought to do (by definition), and the first draft of Unanimity will be finished before long—probably before the end of summer, though certainly not before its beginning.

I hope you all stay well, and try to improve every day, in at least small ways.  If you happen to know someone who struggles with depression—and it’s not possible to have depression without a struggle—please reach out to them and show support.  They are often entirely incapable of helping themselves, because the very part of their being which would do or even motivate that helping is what the illness debilitates.  They may not feel that they’re worth saving, but if you do, then it’s going to be up to you to do it.  It’s said to be difficult to provide psychotherapy for sociopaths because they don’t feel that there’s anything wrong with themselves.  In depression, the problem is a little different:  it can be difficult to help this disease’s victims because they often, quite literally, think that they do not deserve help, and that your time would be vastly better spent on other people and causes.  You should judge for yourself.

TTFN.

Hole for a Heart – the audio

Well, here it is at last, the audio version of Hole for a Heart.  As always, feel free to listen at your leisure, to download, and even to share the story.  If you like it, I hope you’ll consider buying a copy of the e-book, here.  But, also as always, you are not authorized to make any money in the process.

Enjoy!

A minist’ring angel shall my blog post be

Phew.

I have not been feeling well.  Consequently, I must apologize for the fact that I didn’t post anything on my Iterations of Zero blog this week.  That’s the second time in the last month that I’ve neglected that blog, but I have to say—I hope you’ll trust me on this—that if I had written anything, it probably would have been quite substandard for me (how that compares to anyone else, I’m in no position to judge), and might have veered into true gibberish.  Sunday was a wretched day, and even now I’m still at the tail end of the bug that bit me.  How bad was it?  Let’s just say, when I saw a news story about a minor outbreak of salmonella associated with a particular company’s eggs, I wondered whether I might have gotten a minor dose of it.

For the record, I’m quite sure this was not the case.  Sick though I’ve been, I know that it hasn’t approached salmonella level.

I have, except for that Sunday omission, kept up with my writing and related matters, pretty much to my usual level (though only later review will reveal if quality suffered).  Unanimity, for instance, is proceeding at a steady pace toward its conclusion, though it’s not there yet by any means.  I had no idea when I started writing it that it was going to be so long.  I’m going to need to be absolutely ruthless in the rewrite and editing stage to make sure there’s not just a lot of unnecessary stuff in there.  I don’t feel like there is, but it’s hard to tell while in the thick of things.

Speaking of length, I’m almost done with the final editing of the audio for Hole for a Heart, and I expect to release it onto my blog by the end of this week, to be then adapted for “video” and posted on YouTube.  It’s my longest audio yet, and I’m pretty happy with it.  As always, there are some technical imperfections here and there, but my audio skill is gradually improving.  I hope you’ll enjoy it.

I’ve decided on a slight change of plans with respect to my audio projects.  I had originally intended to go from Hole for a Heart on to the three short stories in Welcome to Paradox City, probably following the order of the book.  Instead, though, I think I’m going to do a chapter-by-chapter reading of The Chasm and the Collision next.  I feel that, now that I’m developing at least a modicum of skill in this area, it’ll be fun to release that story in audio.  I had planned to serialize the book when originally writing it.  I quickly concluded that serialization wasn’t going to work in that case, especially given my personal logistic constraints at the time, but I think it will be fun to serialize it on audio.  I do love the story, I must admit it; I’m quite pleased with the world I created, as well as the characters.  If I can entice more readers into exploring it by rationing out the tale, read aloud, a chapter at a time, well…I think that will be time well spent, and will certainly be enjoyable for me.

I may occasionally intersperse a reading of one of my short stories in the middle, at good pausing points in the book.  That will depend on whether I need a break from the story or not, more than on anything else.  One thing seems certain, each individual chapter of CatC will take less time to produce in audio than any of my short stories so far.

Coming back to Iterations of Zero:  I’ve mentioned before that, partly as a way of making up for having missed (now) two weeks of writing it, I’m planning on re-blogging some articles I wrote before, and originally posted here, but which really are more well-suited for the general-purpose, non-fiction-related IoZ gestalt.  I may edit those articles/posts before republishing them, or I may just throw them out as they are.  We shall see.

With that, I think there’s not much more that needs to be said this week.  Again, the audio for Hole for a Heart should appear here within the next 24 to 48 hours, and subsequently on YouTube.  Most importantly, my original fiction writing will continue at its usual pace, through Unanimity, to a short story immediately after, and thence to my next novel, which is already chewing on the inside of my brain, sensing hungrily the proximity of freedom.  And whither then?  I cannot say.

TTFN

My heroes have always been villains, Episode I: The Downfall and Redemption of Anakin Skywalker

Welcome to the first “official” entry in the “My heroes have always been villains” series.  I had trouble deciding with which villain to inaugurate the project.  Should I start with that quintessential Western villain, Satan, specifically as characterized in Milton’s Paradise Lost?  He’s certainly one of the grandest and most impressive of malevolent creations, and Milton’s epic is undeniably one of the greatest works in the English language.  But that might be rather rarefied as a beginning, and though Milton did a great job making Satan not only believable but even convincing and charismatic, there’s still a lack of depth to the character.

In the end, I decided to go for a “lower-brow” starting point and to begin with perhaps the most well-known of villains in all of modern literature*:  Darth Vader.

For those of us who experienced the Star Wars phenomenon from its beginning, our understanding of the character of Darth Vader underwent a very drawn-out process of discovery.  When we first met him, he seemed a superficially one-dimensional bad guy, but we quickly learned that he was not some essence of pure evil by nature, for early in the movie Obi-wan Kenobi says that Vader was once a Jedi knight, “before he turned to evil.”

If there is a pure and ultimate villain of the Star Wars saga, it is surely Emperor Palpatine, who seems to have been a bad seed right from the start.  This makes him a great villain in a sense—you certainly don’t have to feel bad about opposing him, or about how he meets his end.  But there’s also no deep humanity to him.  No one but a psychopath could truly empathize with him, and psychopaths just aren’t very good at doing that.

Darth Vader, however, as we learn his life story in the prequels and on back through the original three Star Wars movies, is on par with the great, tragic villains of classical literature.  His decline and fall and eventual redemption are arcs of character development worthy of Shakespeare (if nowhere near as well written).  In fact, the villain whose story I find most reminiscent of Vader’s is MacBeth.  He starts out truly heroic in character, brave and noble, serving the good of his society, as does MacBeth (Vader actually succeeds in being more complex than MacBeth, if only because he has six longish movies in which to explore his personal development, while MacBeth had only one relatively short play).  Vader’s descent is not born of some innate tendency to evil but is the product of many attributes that we would rightly call virtues, but which are twisted to become classic, tragic flaws.

Anakin Skywalker is earnest and brave from the first moment we meet him.  He is also loving and devoted, first to his mother, and then to Padme and Qui-gon Jinn, and even to Obi-wan.  He desires to do good, that much is clear.  Vader, despite his tendency to choke subordinates to death, never seems to be a sadist.  Palpatine may gloat and laugh while he torments his enemies with “force lightning”, but Vader lashes out in anger, and that anger seems, to me at least, to be born of frustration.  He’s trying to do “good”—to bring order to the galaxy, as he says—and his people keep screwing that up for him.

Anakin Skywalker’s tragic flaw is in that he loves too much; he can’t internalize the Jedi’s Buddhist-style ethos of non-attachment.  This surely has at least something to do with his early life as a slave.  A slave always lives in fear, as so wonderfully summarized by Roy Baty near the end of Blade Runner, because whatever a slave has or loses, including his life, is entirely out of his hands.  Anything a slave loves can be taken from him, arbitrarily and capriciously, not merely by the vicissitudes of impersonal nature, but by the human whims of his owner.  But even after Anakin gains freedom and great power as a Jedi, he cannot prevent the death of his mother, and that loss and frustration leads him to act out in rage, his first real act of darkness.  But this is not an act of sadistic destruction, indulged in out of a love of suffering and death, but is an expression of loss and horrible grief.  We can sympathize with Anakin’s feelings, even if we cannot condone his actions.

It is that very love and attachment—and the fear of loss that is such a strong part of it—that provides the opening for the true villain of the piece to manipulate Anakin, and to lead him to betray the Jedi.  This ironically causes him to lose everything that he loves, and to become, finally, “more machine than man…twisted and evil.”  In many ways, Anakin’s descent is more credible, and more sympathetic—as well as more tragic—than that of MacBeth.  Those very aspects of character that make Anakin a great hero are the means by which he loses his mooring and becomes a figure of terror and hatred.

Unlike MacBeth—again, partly because he just has more stage time with which to work—Vader is able to achieve, in the end, a redemption from evil through the love of his recently-discovered son.  At one point in Return of the Jedi, Vader says to Luke that Obi-wan was wise to hide from him the fact that Leia was his daughter, and presumably also that Luke was his son.  I have to wonder if that’s true.  Hiding the children from Palpatine was certainly wise, since he would have seen them as potential, powerful tools.  But Vader’s embrace of violence and darkness is surely at least partly because he believes he truly has lost everything that has ever mattered to him.  Thus, he surely sees the universe as a place of unmitigated shadow.  If he had known that his children had survived—rather than dying with their mother, as he apparently believed—I think he would might have turned against the Emperor much earlier than he finally did.  Maybe not.  Maybe he would have been just as tragically afraid of loss as he had been before and would have willfully committed just as great acts of evil to protect himself from ever losing them.  We can certainly imagine Palpatine deliberately engineering that loss for him, to draw him even more thoroughly into darkness, this time with no chance of redemption.  But it’s also possible to imagine Vader turning on and destroying the Emperor much earlier, recognizing the threat that Palpatine would always be to his children, and striving to make a peaceful and benevolent life for them.  Would he then have been able to escape the fearful attachment that led to his fall in the first place?  It’s impossible to say.

In any case, Vader’s story arc is what it is, constrained by the necessities of epic story-telling.  We would not be as satisfied with MacBeth if the title character had surrendered himself to MacDuff, shown repentance, and thrown himself on the mercy of his righteous avengers; he must be killed in battle, destroyed by the one to whom he has done the greatest harm.  Vader’s end is, in many ways, better than that of most fictional antagonists.  He gets to meet his lost children, and he finally turns on the real villain who has engineered much of his misery, helping to free the galaxy and then dying peacefully in the arms of his son.  It’s an ending worthy of a place of honor among those grand and melodramatic tales that have stood out in the history of story-telling.

Star Wars has its clunkiness, especially when it comes to dialogue—George Lucas is no William Shakespeare, but then again, who among us is?  But in that it revolves around the character development and descent—and then reclamation—of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, it achieves a level of sophistication that belies the superficial lightness of its entertainment form.  There is real depth, pathos, and tragedy to the story of Darth Vader, the heart of the Star Wars saga, and this is probably why Vader is one of the most well-known and—dare I say it?—beloved villains in all of modern literature.


*in the definition of which I include not just written fiction, but also comic books, movies, and potentially, even video games

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor blog post

Hello and good day to you all.

It’s been a reasonably productive week for me, especially considering that I haven’t felt very well.  I didn’t even write an entry for Iterations of Zero last Sunday, but I’m planning on making up for that by publishing two new posts this coming week—one new and one republished from among works that were previously posted here.

On the other hand, Unanimity has been proceeding at an excellent pace.  On Saturday, April 28th, its first draft passed the quarter-million-word mark.  This will be my longest book so far, even after I pare it ruthlessly down in the editing process.  That’s not a bad thing, though—at least I hope it won’t be.  The story will be as long as it must be.  I’m just the messenger; please don’t shoot me (though you can, if you wish, quote MacBeth and call me “Liar and slave!”).  I’m greatly enjoying writing the book, and that has to be my primary criterion for success.  Obviously, I hope that people will read and enjoy the finished product, but even if I knew without any possible doubt that no one would, I think I’d still write it.

The recording of the audio of Hole for a Heart is complete, and the sound-editing process has begun.  I’ve been forced to re-record some of it due to mic malfunctions during the initial reading, which led to terrible static.  Apparently, once or twice while I read, the microphone cord came partly loose.  The result, when looked at on the waveform-layout, is a terrible progression of spikes, and when you listen…well, you won’t listen, because that’s been deleted and re-recorded.  Trust me, you wouldn’t want to hear it.

I did a little more “voice acting” in this story than in its predecessors, because there are more characters interacting, and there’s a bit more drama and emotion in that interaction.  I worry that I might have hammed it up a bit in places, but at least I enjoyed myself.  The story doesn’t have a happy ending, but then again, it’s a horror short story, so it wouldn’t end happily, would it?  Looking back on my published short stories, only one in three seems to have a “happy” ending, and if you go back in time to earlier works, that ratio drops even farther.  My novels, though, are another matter.  They all end up, more or less, with the good guys having triumphed, at least for the time being.

Unanimity will end on a bittersweet note, though.  Oh, of course, the situation will be resolved, and the dangers will be conquered, but the outcome will still be tragic, and the surviving characters will be scarred by their experiences.  This, unfortunately, is just the way things often are—in life as in fiction.

The next novel I plan to write, on the other hand, is going to be much more upbeat, and probably quite a bit shorter.  I’m not sure which of the stories clamoring about in my head will be released after that.  Eventually, I’m going to write a second book, and then a third, in the saga of Mark Red, but I really want to get other things out first before I return to my young demi-vampire and his friend and mentor, the vampire Morgan.  At some point, I expect also to write my prequel to Son of Man, detailing the back story of the character Michael.  That’s a tale that’s been waiting in my head for at least as long as Son of Man waited.

Of course, sooner or later, I’m going to write the story of my beloved characters The Dark Fairy and the Desperado, originally created in idle drawings, and yet other books lie waiting in between.  Thankfully, I write almost every day, unless I’m feeling quite ill.  I’d love to be able honestly to paraphrase Epicurus and say, “When I get a little time, I write books.  If I have any left over, I work to buy food and clothes.”  Unfortunately, in real life, working to make a living takes up a far bigger chunk of my time than writing does.  And then, of course, I have to sleep, alas.

Finally, as I said previously, I am going to start, probably next week, writing my long-planned series on my favorite villains from literature—from novels, to myths, to legends, to comic books, to movies, and beyond.  Often in fiction (and less often, but far too often, in real life), villains are the ones who set a story in motion.  Without Sauron, The Lord of the Rings would not be worth telling, and Harry Potter’s life would be far less gripping (though probably much more pleasant) had there been no Voldemort.  Villains act while the heroes, more or less, simply react, but both of them, when they’re “good”, teach us about the world and about ourselves.  Perhaps more important, reading about them is fun.

On that note, I’ll bring this blog post to a close.  Thank you all for reading, and please be as well as you can possibly be.

TTFN

Author’s note for “Hole for a Heart”

holeforaheartredgreywith frame

 

Those of you who have followed this blog for more than half a year will already know at least a bit about the origins of my story Hole for a Heart, but there’s still more that can be said, so don’t fear too much in the way of redundancy.

The seed of this story was planted on a bus trip from southern Florida to Ohio, where I was going to visit my parents.  As I’ve described before, while passing through a relatively hilly area of central Florida, I saw, through the west-facing bus window, a tall tree near a highway exit.  Underneath it stood what appeared to be a scarecrow.  The Greyhound moved far too quickly for me to make out any details, and unlike Jon in the story, I did not have the option to stop.  But it was an interesting sight, partly because, like Jon, I couldn’t really see the point of putting up a scarecrow under a tree on a hill near a highway exit.  Neither was it anywhere near Halloween.  I wondered what the story behind it might be.  So, I quickly pulled out my smartphone and jotted down the sight as a possible story trigger.

The actual tale itself didn’t really form until several months later, more or less all at once.  This happened at the beginning of October, just in time for me to finish it and publish a draft on my blog for Halloween.  This happy coincidence helped inspire me to crank away at the tale, though it led me to first publish it in less than ideally polished form.

The protagonist of the story, Jonathan Lama, is named after two people I’ve known.  The first name was given in memory of a friend of mine from work, who died of what I believe was a semi-deliberate drug overdose, and it is his form I see when I think of the character.  The last name is that of someone still living, and who appears to be doing much better, rebuilding a life that had almost been destroyed in a similar fashion.  Quite apart from being a way to give an homage to these two people, I think the combination of one dead and one living person somehow suits the character of Jon (the one in the story), who is in some ways—as his former girlfriend would no doubt say—not actually living his life.  This could, of course, be confabulation on my part; I don’t honestly recall exactly what my thought process was in deciding on the name, except that it certainly was chosen after the two people I just mentioned.

The title of this story is a fairly obvious reference to the state and fate of the “scarecrow” on the hill.  That dead (?) remnant of Joshua Caesar, that scourge of western central Pennsylvania in the late forties and early fifties, is missing its heart, having had it cut out by his vengeful neighbors when they had finally decided to take justice into their own hands.  But that’s not the only reference to which it applies, nor was it the original meaning for the story’s title.  In fact, it’s Jon himself who bears the titular empty cavity in his torso.  Despite being truly gifted and brilliant at his chosen field, Jon has a near-nihilistic ambivalence toward life, toward attempting anything that involves real commitment and stress.  He sees no point in struggling in a world where all lives end, and everyone leaves with exactly that with which they arrived.  This ambivalence had cost Jon the love of his life (who shared a name with the ill-fated former object of Joshua Caesar’s affections), a loss that had further hollowed out his own metaphorical chest.

I like the supernatural elements of this story, and I like the juxtaposition of Jon’s and Joshua Caesar’s two very different personal philosophies.  The latter is a Nietzschean, “the strong and the superior do what they like and are responsible for the greatness of humanity,” point of view, while the former is, as I said, practically nihilistic.  But I think my very favorite elements of this story are the gas station clerk, Matty, and his employer, Mr. McGlynn.  I just find them both quite likeable; I enjoy their conversations with each other and with Jon.  Clearly, Matty is not the very brightest of sparks, but he’s smarter than he seems at first glance, and is earnest and well-meaning in his way.  McGlynn, quite sharp indeed, is in superficial ways like Jon.  He’s content to live a simple life running a gas station next to the interstate, despite probably being capable of more.  But on closer inspection, his attitude is worlds apart from Jon’s.  There’s no despair or sense of meaninglessness in McGlynn’s philosophy of life; he seems to enjoy himself very much, in his way, and he clearly has affection and respect for his young employee, and for his customer.  He does take a mischievous and slightly sadistic satisfaction in telling a story that might horrify both Jon and Matty, but I think he can be forgiven for this.

I would think that, though, wouldn’t I?

As with many of my short stories, this one leaves us all hanging at the end, me included.  I wonder at times just what the new driver of the restored ’97 Mustang will do after he pulls onto the interstate at the end of the tale, and whether this path will take him to Chicago, to seek out a young woman who had, in her own way, stolen Jon’s heart before the story ever began.  More than that, though, I think it would be fun, if we had world enough and time, to follow Matty and McGlynn.  I’d like to visit that gas station, to stop and share conversations with the two of them—perhaps while drinking a cup of gas station coffee—to listen to McGlynn’s tales of local history and legend, while Matty hangs raptly and unabashedly on his words.

I think I’d listen just as enthusiastically.