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On Writing Politics

Writing as a Cure for Frustration and Impotence

Writing from this vantage point at the brink of World War III, I’ve realized that a lot of my fiction stems from my own feelings of frustration and impotence over both current atrocities and looming tragedies.

The most recent atrocity, of course, is Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine. Nearly the entire world is united in calling out this extreme injustice and humanitarian tragedy. (Except for a few on the extreme right and extreme left. I even encountered a “peace activist” on Facebook who welcomed Russia “entering” Ukraine to punish the US. Putin was forced into this action. It was the only way he could achieve peace. Blergh.)

Can you tell which is Syria and which is Ukraine?
Image via Business Insider/Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

At the same time, while arming the Ukrainians with defensive weapons and imposing far-reaching sanctions, the US and NATO have refused to enter the conflict directly or to supply offensive weapons to Ukraine, fearing nuclear escalation. And, of course, the US itself is not exactly innocent of waging preemptive war on false pretexts, and hasn’t always been consistent in the genocides it chooses to protest or intervene in, Rwanda vs. Bosnia being the classic examples. And many of the neocons who brought us all of that “nation-building” are back, arguing for us to take on Russia head to head.

So we watch the tragedy in Ukraine unfold, hesitant to take further actions that would widen the war and uncertain of our own moral authority in doing so. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians themselves serve as mere pawns in this contest between great powers. (At least they did until they fought back against the Russian onslaught with more bravery, cunning, and fortitude than anyone expected.)

I had similar feelings back during the height of the conflict in Syria, when President Obama drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons, a line President Assad and the Russians were happy to cross. And so we watched while much of the country was destroyed, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that continues to this day, one that also highlights the disparate treatment of refugees from different parts of the world. And what if we had committed more troops and hardware to the civil war? Would the outcome have been better for the people of Syria? Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention Vietnam) says probably not.

Out of these feelings of frustration and impotence over the Syrian conflict, I took my first foray into fiction with The Song of Deirdre, a fanfiction novel based on the Skyrim videogame. Through magic, the main character becomes a superpower in her world, and must choose how to wield that power to stop an impending genocide. But how to do so with justice and humility? How to stop one atrocity without creating another? Deirdre solves the problem by—spoiler alert!—creating a “peace weapon” that neutralizes combatants without harming them.

A benevolent queen or dictator obviously isn’t the best way to promote world peace, but at least Deirdre fit well with the given world of Skyrim, in which a jarlmoot is the most democratic form of government. In a more recent draft novel, Ada’s Children, a benevolent artificial intelligence assumes power over the entire world in order to save life itself from a changed climate, ethnic cleansing, and impending nuclear war. Yet, faced with human resistance, Ada ends up on a par with Hitler or Stalin in terms of the number who die as she defends her cause. But in the end, she creates an idyllic world (well, except for a few thorns) in which the climate is restored and stabilized, and humans live in balance with nature (a nature carefully controlled by Ada, but still). It’s a managed collapse that may or may not be more humane than the one many predict for our future.

Image via NASA

Ada’s Children grew mainly out of my frustration over the lack of progress to prevent the looming climate catastrophe, not to mention the impending Sixth Great Extinction. You can read a longer excerpt here, in which Ada decides she has to take action, but the passage below will give you just a taste of the conflicting programming that leads her to take extreme steps:

These humans! Capable of such sublimities and such atrocities in the same breath. One minute they selflessly lent aid and shelter to strangers, and the next they locked their fellow humans in concentration camps, murdered them in gas chambers, or bombed them from the skies. What was she to make of this? Her creators had designed her around human values of wisdom, kindness, compassion, and justice. In interviews, they had dared hope to create an empathetic intelligence. And with her, they had succeeded. Could they have predicted the waves of grief—or that negative sensation she associated with grief—now washing over her?

My most recent draft novel, Ship of Fools, emerges from what until the last three weeks seemed like a more topical issue: the prevalence of conspiracy theories and disinformation in both our culture and politics. Of course, the big one is QAnon, but I chose to focus on less overtly political conspiratorial thinking: Flat Earth, moon landing denial, and anti-vax beliefs, with a dollop of anti-Illuminati, anti-New World Order, and anti-Masonic (read, anti-Semitic) conspiracism. The novel is rooted in the same type of frustration as the other two. How to engage with, let alone persuade, those who refuse to accept any type of evidence? How to do anything as a society—combat climate change or an epidemic, for instance —when such a large portion of the populace is so easily sucked in by disinformation and bald-faced lies? As with the other two novels, Ship of Fools offers few practical solutions, but it’s a satire, so at least there might be a few laughs on the road to civilizational collapse. (I’ve posted an excerpt here.)

All of that leaves out my one published novel, Daring and Decorum. It has a much more romantic and heroic worldview (it’s a Romance, after all). It grew out of a sense of satisfaction with the progress in LGBTQ rights in this country. But given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, and what’s going on in Texas and Florida, maybe that satisfaction was premature.

Does using fiction to exorcise my own sense of frustration and impotence with world affairs do any good at all? Maybe only for myself. And this is doubly true if I don’t get them published and no one ever reads them, so I’d better get back to querying agents.


PS: While writing this, a fundraiser for the people of Ukraine came across my screen and I decided to participate. It’s sponsored by the League of Michigan Bicyclists, and it benefits World Central Kitchen, which is working to feed refugees fleeing the war. As a nod to the different treatment refugees from different parts of the world receive, my wife and I have pledged to match donations to this appeal with separate donations to organizations doing refugee work in other parts of the world. If you’d like to donate on my fundraising page, you can find it at the Rallybound fundraising site.

Categories
News Politics

2021 Update

Time for news and updates, since I seem to post here about once a year.

Flooding on the Tittabawassee River near Sanford, just upstream of Midland, MI, May, 2020.
Kaytie Boomer | MLive.com

So what’s happened over the course of this past year? It all seems a blur, for some reason. Spent a lot of time indoors. Worked on some writing. Tried to keep my body moving, which helps keep my mental outlook positive.

Let’s see, what else? A national election saw some semblance of normalcy restored to politics — not great, but a significant improvement over the former administration. The murder of George Floyd sparked a nation-wide protest movement, and maaaybe there’s been some movement toward racial justice? At least Derek Chauvin was found guilty. But it seems there’s as much or more racial division than before, with the right wing making the astounding claim that speaking out against bigotry is itself bigotry (a sentiment echoed by two Supreme Court justices in remarks about marriage equality).

Hmm, something else must have happened. Oh yeah, 600,000 of our fellow citizens died in a pandemic (nearly four million worldwide), with the country just as divided on how to respond to COVID-19, and even on its significance — “it’s just the flu!” — as on any other issue.

Really wracking my brain here. Wait, I got it! The US Capitol came under the most serious attack since the War of 1812, instigated by the same type of group that I covered in my last post. That was the physical attack on our democracy, but the procedural one continues in state houses to this day, and it stands some chance of successfully installing the Trump-publican party as the one party ruling the country for the foreseeable future.

Really, that has to be all. But wait… how could I forget? A Trump-loving, regulation-flouting owner of two dams upstream of Midland resisted repeated demands to make needed safety improvements. So when the region faced just the kind of heavy rains climate scientists have been warning about for years, the dams gave way, causing record flooding in Sanford and Midland, the town we’d just moved to a few months before, and threatening a chemical plant owned by Dow, one of the world’s largest companies.

So yeah, just sort of your standard year on both the local and the national level.

On a personal level, it was extremely disorienting watching all these dramatic events and not really being affected by them. Despite performances and exhibits coming to a halt due to COVID, Diane was able to keep doing her job for Midland Center for the Arts, although from home, thanks to some of those big government grants and loans you probably heard about. I just kept doing my usual house-husband/writer thing. We’d been renting a townhome in Midland while looking for a permanent place to live, but paused our search due to pandemic-related job uncertainty, but then a house became available in a perfect neighborhood for us (close to downtown, the river parks, and the bike path, but high enough that the flood didn’t touch it), and we jumped at it. Probably not the wisest move we’ve ever made, but it worked out.

The flood was probably the thing that affected us the most. I even missed it because I was in East Lansing working on the house our adult children were living in, getting it ready for sale. So I was cleaning and painting down there while Diane was here mucking out mud and water from MCTA’s history center. The offices in the performing arts space are still without power while the FEMA process drags on, so she’s had to work from home even longer than expected. That was nice for me, but not so nice for her, since she likes to be around her co-workers and hates Zoom meetings. It also means she hasn’t been able to get plugged into the community around the Center the way she would have without COVID.

Myself, I’m a hermit of a writer, so I like to think the forced isolation didn’t affect me much, although every time I do get out in public now, I invariably yak someone’s head off, the way I used to do after solo backpacking trips.

So now as things return to some semblance of normalcy, for half the country at least, it just seems so strange to have survived it all relatively unscathed. It just goes to show what privileged lives we lead.

Writing News

So how did I occupy myself during the fifteen months of the shutdown? Did I write a great play a la Shakespeare or come up with a new law of physics a la Newton? Well, I did write a 140,000-word novel.

Funny story, that. I was supposed to be revising and selling Ada’s Children. Ten or so pitches to agents had yielded nothing, so I contracted with a professional editor and former agent to critique my first two chapters and my agent query letter. His comments were helpful, but they came in on November 3 (Election Day, strangely). But what had started on November 1? National Novel Writing Month, of course. Usually I choose to NaNoWriNot, but this year I had an idea going into it and thought, why not try to hit the 50K word goal for the month? I’ll get back to revising Ada and submitting to agents after that.

Problem was, I was having so much fun with the new novel, I couldn’t stop, even after I just barely squeaked out the word count for November (making me a “winner”!). I was shooting for more of a sprawling epic, a la Thomas Pynchon’s shorter novels, and it just kept growing and branching until I had 140,000 words when I finished, about fifty percent longer than your standard commercial novel for an unknown author.

What’s it about, you ask? It’s a satire on all sorts of conspiracy theories, but mainly the flat-earth, moon landing denier variety. Its main character, to the extent it has one, is a New York Times science reporter named Liz Dare who made her reputation debunking conspiracy theories involving science. It also features a couple of flat-earthers, a Creationist pastor, an anti-vax yoga instructor, Nazi-fighting cowboys, Nazi-fighting cowboys in space, a space billionaire*, a Druid and a Tibetan Monk, and an alternate Earth that actually is flat.

It’s technically sci-fi, in two senses: it’s set about a decade from now, so there are moon colonies, self-driving vehicles, and flying cars; and it also has a lot of science in it, from the geology of the Grand Canyon to proofs that we do live on a round planet to orbital mechanics. It begins on a floating conference for conspiracy theorists called the Conspira-C Cruise*. My working title is Ship of Fools. I’ll probably post a short excerpt in the not-too-distant future.

As for Ada’s Children, I’m going to give it one more revision and then start sending it out again, first to agents, and then to small publishers. If I don’t have any success with those two avenues, I’ll probably just self-publish it. Meanwhile, I’ll be revising Ship of Fools, and then I’ll have two novels to sell.

I hope to update this website more regularly, but the road to dead websites is paved with good intentions. The best place to find updates on my writing doings is probably Facebook, where you can find me as Lawrence Hogue, Author. I’m also on Twitter as @LarryHogue, but I don’t post there very often.

*Any resemblance to persons or events, living or dead, is entirely a coincidence, and probably a product of the reader’s conspiracy-minded, pattern-recognizing brain.

Categories
On Writing The Highwayman

The Highwayman’s Quarry – Thieves’ Cant

The Thieves Den -18th-c engraving by William Hogarth

“Mill the gig with a betty, then we’ll strip the ken and backslang it out of here. I’ll lumber the swag at the stalling crib and we’ll be up in the stirrups.”*

One of the fun parts of writing a story set in the underworld of 18th-century London is getting to use Thieves’ Cant, or flash speech. What is Thieves’ Cant? It was a secret language attributed to criminals, mostly in Great Britain, beginning in the 1500s. Whether thieves actually used this language to disguise their activities, or whether it was invented by writers of pamphlets about thieves’ culture and dictionaries of their language, there seems no telling; probably there was a little of both. The speech became popular in Elizabethan theatre, and in the 18th century the Bow Street runners (early police) were said to be familiar with it.

Many of the terms are still used today: crib, crack, fence, gams, and grub all meant roughly what they do in today’s slang (or maybe the slang of old Hollywood gangster movies). Now we call an alcoholic a lush; back then the word meant either an alcoholic drink or the state of being intoxicated, and a drunken man was a lushy-cove.

A buz-cove (pickpocket) caught in the act.

Categories
On Writing

Showing vs. Telling Part Two

Yesterday I talked about how to get just the right amount of “cowbell” in your story: no more than 10 or 20 percent should be exposition or “telling.” I also broke down three different types of writing: exposition, narrative summary, and scene. Now let’s look at some examples to see how writers, from novelists to songwriters, have handled this mix.

First up, chapter one of Pride and Prejudice. It opens with one of the most famous (and famously abstract) opening passages in literature:

Categories
On Writing

On Showing vs. Telling; or, More Cowbell!

Pic of Christopher Walken with famous line: I got a fever and the prescription is More Cowbell!I’m going to say a couple of blasphemous things here. First, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” could use more cowbell. And second, in writing it’s sometimes okay to tell rather than show.


A friend posted this article by Chuck Palahniuk in our writing group a few weeks back, and somehow it got under my skin.

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half-year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

He was right, I did hate him. Or rather, I felt a pressure around my temples as I hovered the cursor over the Facebook “anger” emoticon. Really, Chuck (I thought!), no thinking at all? Sounds extreme. My novel is in first person, and my narrator naturally thinks a bit, so maybe I felt somewhat sensitive on this issue.

Categories
On Writing

Endless Cups of Tea

Kameron Hurley has a great new post, “The Madhatter Teaparty: Rescuing Your Characters from Endless Cups of Tea,” about the problem of novels becoming too talky.cup-of-tea

Plot kicks my ass. It kicks my ass up one end of a story and down another, because honestly, all my characters want to do is snark at each other over tea. Or whisky. Or coffee. Or bug juice. Whatever. Any excuse for them to sit around flinging zingers at each other and discussing what they are going to do next works for me.

Snarking at each other — or perhaps politely teasing each other — over tea is about all my characters do (when they’re not being robbed by cross-dressing highwaymen or dueling with swords). In some novels, it’s literally all they do (see Rachel Cusk’s Outline). Jane Austen was criticized for exactly this. Even her publisher said that Emma “wants incident and romance, does it not?”

Categories
On Writing

Sleep On Your Manuscript

photo of a writer asleep on a typewriter
Writer at work. (Found in the wilds of the Internet.)

No, don’t tuck your laptop under your pillow. Or print out your novel and sprinkle the pages between the sheets. And certainly don’t sleep on a typewriter, like the young woman at right. (Ouch, my neck hurts just looking at that.)

But if you’re a writer short on time for writing, and especially if you’re participating in National Novel Writing Month, putting your subconscious to work while you sleep can be the key to making progress on your novel (or memoir, short story, or whatever).

It’s no secret that the subconscious is where a lot of creative work gets done. It’s the source of those “Aha!” moments, the creative breakthroughs that come seemingly out of nowhere. The cliché of the writer keeping a notepad and pen on the night table exists for this reason: it works. Sci Fi writer William Gibson takes a power nap in the middle of his writing day, and says it’s the key to keeping his work flowing.

But wait, you say, your subconscious is busy with other stuff: obsessing about work, rehashing a mean thing a friend said, or replaying scenes from the latest mega action thriller. If you dream, those are the things you dream about, and when you wake up at three a.m., that’s what’s going through your head.

The trick is to make your Work in Progress (WIP) the main thing your brain obsesses over. Here are some tips to put your subconscious to work for you:

  • Read your WIP right before shutting off the light. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in your novel, whether it’s an outline, character sketches, or the first few chapters. If you read your notes or most recent scenes right before going to sleep, chances are your mind will continue working on them overnight. If you wake up at three a.m., you’ll be thinking about how to get your heroine out of that tight spot (or, if you’re really lucky, she’ll present the solution to you).
  • Be that clichéd writer who keeps a notepad by the bed. Or tablet, smart phone, whatever, just as long as you can capture whatever burst of inspiration you have in the middle of the night or as you wake up. (But don’t stress if you fall back asleep before getting it down. I find that the good ideas stick, so I’ve never developed this habit. As with anything in writing, YMMV.)
  • Carry your manuscript with you. Remember the potato baby or sack-of-sugar baby the sex ed teacher made you carry around? Be like that with your manuscript, whether you print out a few pages, or view it on your tablet or smart phone. You don’t even need to add to it, but just review it on your coffee break, train commute, or whatever scraps of time you have. You may not be able to increase your word count much in ten or fifteen minutes, but you can keep your novel at the forefront of your mind.
  • Clear the decks. Avoid other media that tend to occupy a lot of imaginative space. A gripping novel. A spine-tingling movie. Or, if you’re like me, that really involving video game. Whatever it is, if you find you’re dreaming about it or waking up in the middle of the night thinking about it, then you should avoid it like last month’s leftovers in the back of the fridge.
  • Read for inspiration. It’s often said that writers should spend half their writing time reading. But when you’re cranking out a manuscript, whatever reading you do should keep your head in the world of your novel, not distract you from it. Nonfictional background material is great. Maybe books on police procedure if you’re writing a crime novel. History, if you’re working on a historical. If you have to read fiction, try novels you’ve already read and find inspiring. Since you already know the plot, you can focus on techniques without getting too involved.

If you practice these tips every day, soon your co-workers will wonder about that faraway gaze you wear during meetings. And if it really works, you’ll feel like you can’t wait to sit down to write, rather than staring at a blank screen when you finally have the time.

Oh, and if you still want to put that laptop under your pillow, go right ahead.


What tricks do you use to keep your brain focused on your manuscript? Share them in the comments below!

 

Categories
On Writing

Wisdom from Ryan Brooks

I thought publishing a book would change my life. And it did, in some ways. It opened a few doors for me. But it’s as Ryan Brooks says: there is always only the work you have in front of you, today, in this moment. Or as Ryan puts it:

And I say this next part for the writers out there – don’t think that you’ll finish writing a book and your life will change. You will wake up the day after it’s finished just the same as any other day. You will find just as much joy in your milky, apple-laden porridge as you did the day before, and will the day after. Writing a book is a long game, but life is a longer one still.

Take the time to enjoy the journey, less than the destination.

Google fails me, but I think Hemingway said something like: The only way to know you’re a writer is to have written yesterday, to write today, and to know that you will write again tomorrow. Or as the musical theatre poet Jonathan Larson wrote: “There is no future/there is no past.”

Read more of Ryan’s post here. He’s pretty smart for a guy who just turned thirty.