Suffering?

Pooks made a comment here about my reaction to my short story, and used it to ask whether other writers suffered.

My initial reaction was “that isn’t suffering,” and I haven’t changed my mind, but after thinking it over for a while, I can see why she’d the question that way. Making the reader suffer is something we try to do all the time. Whether it’s suffering from a sad ending, or from edge-of-the-seat tension, or terror, a good book can make a reader suffer – in a sense.

That’s not what I’d consider suffering, though. So my answer is still no. Suffering would mean to be persecuted for their work, like Solzhenitsyn or Rushdie. Or to be so obsessed with the creative process that your life suffers. (I’m obsessive, but not to that extent.)

In the sense of “make the reader (/ viewer / whatever) suffer,” obviously, there are some great books and movies that do that. I doubt I’ll ever be able to watch “Paris, Texas” again. (Of all the emotionally-wrenching movies I’ve seen, that’s the one that always comes to mind.) The movie makes you identify with the protagonist, and you certainly feel the protagonist’s suffering, which is a deeply disturbing and upsetting experience. I just wouldn’t consider my own reaction to it as suffering.

And that is very similar to how I feel about my own characters. When I realized how much potential suffering the one change I made would cause my protagonist, it did upset me – in exactly the same way that it would upset me had I experienced this in someone else’s fiction. I certainly wouldn’t refrain from making the change because of it – quite the contrary. I’m always happy to make change that sadden me, because I think it has the potential to improve the story.

This particular change doesn’t even guarantee that things will be as bleak as I imagine, and that’s better still, since ambiguity is (almost) always good.

Having said all that – there’s a problem with identifying with my characters so closely. I can tell when making them suffer is an improvement, but I can’t know whether the story is as good as it seems to me. I’m sure that no-one is going to find the story has as much meaning to them as it does to me, because I’ve lived the idea for so long. It might be that if you can be more dispassionate about your characters, you can get a better feel for the overall success of the story.

(We decided – in her presence – that Pooks must be a sociopath for the way she can remain cool while tormenting her creations.)

Still, whether or not there are benefits to a dispassionate view, I’ll take my way of doing things. Then I know that a) at least one person gets to enjoy my writing, and b) the act of creating a story is at least as worthwhile as the act of reading someone else’s.

Actually, I say movies and books don’t make me suffer. That’s not really true – I have watched Battlefield Earth. If I ever find myself creating something of the caliber of that dismal piece of garbage, I hope that I will be able to do the honorable thing.

Mac attack

I’m sure this is already all over the net, but each time I re-watch it, I aggravate my cough by laughing.

Apple ad targeting Vista.

A long weekend

So I’m finally going to write a fairly personal entry here, because it’s relevant.

This last weekend has been tough, and in a way it isn’t over.

We returned from a couple of years in Seattle in 1987. My wife, Vicki, had been in a car wreck while up there, and was still in constant pain, having trouble thinking and driving. One day in late ’87, she backed into the garage door and made a hole.

Into that gap, in the depths of winter, stole a tiny tabby cat. She’d probably been living in the relative warmth for quite some time when we discovered her, and of course we couldn’t turn her out then. So she became Mokey, a character from Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock – still one of my favorite series, and my all-time favorite children’s show. (Nothing else Jim Henson did – as brilliant as it was – came close to Fraggle Rock, in my opinion.)

Well, as soon as we decided to keep her, and before we had chance to get her to the vet, she ran back out and got pregnant. Cats tend to do that. The result was a gorgeous mixed litter of tabbies and what were obviously siamese-mix kittens.

We gave away all but one. The kitten we kept had siamese points, tabby stripes in seal-point colors, and bright blue eyes. He liked to lie on clothes in the laundry basket, so we called him Boober, after the Fraggle who loved laundry.

He was a menace, as kittens are. In the middle of the night, he’d sneak up between Vicki and me, then reach out and stick all of his claws into my back. Several nights he’d make me wake up yelling. I’ve no idea why he singled me out for this treatment, but I’d always find it funny – after I’d calmed down from the shock.

Our house in Flower Mound had a vaulted ceiling, and a brick fireplace, with an inside brick chimney that ran all the way up – probably to twelve feet or so. One day, Boober climbed up that vertical chimney, just by clawing the bare brick. He got to higher than I could reach – we have a photo of him somewhere – and I have no recollection of how we got him down.

We had him declawed. I’ll never do that again to a cat, furniture notwithstanding, and I’ve always wished I had made that decision before we did it to Boober, because his claws were such a central part of his life.

After neutering, he got fat. He was never a huge cat, maybe fourteen pounds, but the pudgy flaps in front of his back legs would sway as he walked. So we called him “blubber” and plenty of other variants.

One day – we were living in Richardson at the time, so he’d probably have been about five – he followed Vicki out into the front yard. (We always keep our cats indoors, which is why we’d had him declawed.) There was a hawk on a telegraph pole.

Boober saw the hawk catch a squirrel, and was terrified. He slunk back into the house and hid.

Another time, he decided to try exploring our artificial Christmas tree. It couldn’t support his weight. The stand collapsed, showering the floor with ornaments, tinsel, and a very unhappy cat. He was quite disoriented. Eventually he staggered through to the bedroom and sat on the bed, still looking very dizzy.

Our siamese, Pepper, who was always a temperamental, jealous sort, started sniffing around and yowling at him. This is the only time I’ve ever seen Boober do anything of the kind, he’s always been such a gentle cat, but you could see the look in his eyes: “I’ve had enough of this shit.” He reached out a paw and smacked Pepper hard across the face. Bam.

He also earned the label “chicken”, though with his size we’d sometimes decide he was a turkey. He was terrified of thunderstorms. If there was one in the area, he’d find a hiding spot. Sometimes he’d bury himself under the blankets on the bed, and at other times he’d find a hiding place. We don’t even know where all of his hideouts were. He’d just vanish.

So we’d try to predict thunderstorms, and be sure he was penned up in our room if we heard one coming in. That way he’d make a nice warm furry footwarmer under the blankets.

He was our storm cat.

He hasn’t been bothered by thunderstorms in a few years. Maybe he’s gotten brave, or maybe deaf or lazy. I’d suspect lazy.

Ever since Pepper died, Boober has prowled the house at night yowling. There was never any real doubt about his siamese heritage, but the yowls are as clear evidence as any. He and Pepper never seemed especially close, but he started stalking around the house, apparently looking for her, and crying like only a Siamese can.

It’s been several years since Pepper made that final trip to the vet, but he’s never quit. Sometimes he yowls because he’s out of food or water, but mostly it seems to have no cause.

And that’s especially unfortunate, because he’s been yowling so much in the last few weeks, and I just ignored it. But this time I think he had something to cry about. We finally noticed last week how little he has been eating. By the weekend he wouldn’t touch his food at all. Vicki couldn’t even tempt him with cat treats, which until only a couple of weeks ago he would gobble up.

Last week he peed on the floor in the utility room. He’s always been picky about the litter box, but this time it was clean.

So on Saturday, I took him to the vet. He has a heart problem. It sounds quite serious. The vet opened a can of food, and he ate – but since then, he only took a couple of mouthfuls on Saturday, and none since. On Sunday the vet called with the results of lab work – his kidneys are failing.

It isn’t surprising. He’s a very old cat, now. Much older than Pepper was when her kidneys gave out. But, damn, he’s been part of the family so long. Elliot hadn’t turned four when we got him, and he’d have been eight, already middle-aged, when Simon was born. I’m not ready to let him go.

In a few weeks he’d turn nineteen, but right now I doubt he’ll make it until Vicki gets back from Oklahoma on Thursday.

This is the part I hate about having pets. I know that afterwards I’ll look back and feel that it was all worthwhile, and we’ve had a great nineteen years with him, but right now – I hate it. I’m fifty, and I keep crying over one silly old mog.

It didn’t help that on Saturday, after taking Boober to the vet, I watched the end of a truly tear-jerking anime. Yes, they do exist, and no, I wasn’t expecting this to be one, or there’s no way I’d have watched it then.

And on Friday, of course, I found that twist to the story I’ve been working on that gives the potential for a tragic interpretation of events. When the story demands that your characters suffer, and it usually does, you let them suffer, but at the same time you’ve grown close to them, and their pain is upsetting.

So much so that it has been very hard to make revisions this weekend.

With those three things, but most especially the decline of our once fun-loving cat, this has been a very long and upsetting weekend, and the prospects for the rest of the week don’t look much better.

Put that story down, you don’t know where it’s been!

I don’t know much about the technical aspects of writing. I have a fairly good instinctive grasp of grammar – which is fortunate, because I don’t recall ever studying formal grammar at school. When it comes to defining components of a sentence, I can’t – but I rarely need correction. Thinking about it – now, for the first time, as I’m writing this – maybe I should look into a class at the community college. It couldn’t hurt. But it wouldn’t be a critical need.

I know even less about what’s needed to make a story work. When it comes to structure, and the naming of the roles of each character, I’ve got a long way to go. Mostly, I think that what works is what works, and that I can tell what’s working in my writing because I know what works in other books I read. Maybe that’s not going to be enough to get published, but I can’t be worrying about it now.

Pretty much everything I do know about writing technique either is what I’ve learned by reading, or came from an excellent teacher (hi, Pooks!).

Anyway, that’s background for the fact that I don’t really have a lot of training in the craft of writing, which leaves me, I think, open to some surprises.

Lately I’ve been spending most of my time working on a short story. One of the surprises is how radically different it is creating a short compared to writing a novel. Not that this is the first short story I’ve written, but it is the first I’ve approached so seriously after spending so much time with The Book.

Where I’m fine with rattling off a page or two for The Book, and I can tell if it’s adequate, I’m examining pretty much every word of the short story for its effect. Sometimes I’ve spent hours just trying to rewrite a single line. A few days ago a friend commented about a stodgy paragraph – it was one that had been nagging at me, too – and fixing it required me to use a word that I’d used in near proximity (“survive”), which led to me reorganizing and finally rewriting about a page. Just to fix one typo and clean up a slightly clumsy paragraph.

What’s really surprised me, though, is how little I understand what I write. Not the mechanics, but the content.

This short story began life as an idea based on another story I’ve read that I don’t think was handled as well as it could be. There was an element of tragedy in the original that the writer glossed over, I felt, and I thought that there would be an interesting story in what he’d left out.

That was then. Although I remember the source, what I’ve written has so little to do with it, that I’m not even sure what my idea was. As I was watching TV and idly musing on the possibility of writing the story, an idea came to me that made the story rewrite itself. It owes so little to its origins that, as I say, I’ve lost track of what I was thinking. The conceptual rewrite took about three seconds flat; after that, it was just a matter of finding the words.

As with a lot of science fiction, this is a story that you can only really understand in hindsight. As I was writing it, though, I wasn’t consciously trying to make it work for multiple readings, yet now that I go back to review it, I see that I’ve phrased many parts in a way that can make sense with different preconceived ideas of what story I’m telling.

So I had a tale that I liked; one where I could see everything from those first three seconds crystallized into something that I’d like to try to publish.

And then I blew it.

It was another of those deceptively simple changes. I didn’t like one phrase. I’d repeated it for emphasis, and I didn’t like what it had done, but I needed something to strengthen the idea. So I came up with something just subtly different – and suddenly realized that it has such huge implications to the earlier part of the story that I no longer am certain what’s happening. I have to make the change, because it makes for a better, more ambiguous and potentially more poignant tale, but it’s no longer the story that I’d planned. Or, at least, that is only one possible interpretation, now. Another one is quite disturbing.

Some movies, or some of the anime series I watch, have endings where there’s a strong implication that one thing happens, but the ambiguity makes it much more powerful. And there’s an ending that you want to have happened, and can believe happened, but it’s not certain. I know what I want for my protagonist from this story, but I can no longer be certain that she gets it.

And I find that completely amazing, that something so simple could have taken my writing and given it a possibility that I hadn’t remotely considered.

Likely experienced writers see effects like that all the time. I’ve definitely had the first version of The Book spin out of control before now, as characters developed themselves, but never yet have I seen such a simple and unlooked-for change have such a fascinating effect.

It remains to be seen whether the story is publishable, of course, but I’m certain that it became much more so by the change of one line.

Gnomes

Elliot graduated from UTD Saturday. I’ve never been to a US university graduation ceremony before, and I thought it was very well done. I still don’t understand why it’s called “commencement”.

The one sour note for me was the commencement speaker. It just seems like it’s become obligatory to describe the world in terms of terrorism. My own opinion: that means the terrorists have won. They, not we, define our world now.

Well, UTD would never be likely to be considered a center of opposition to the establishment. Even so, to hear a student claim that terrorism is the result of the modern-day loss of compassion brought on by the information age and high-speed computing, and that video games desensitize us to violence is sadenning. If a young person is out of touch with reality, I’d prefer it to be in a creative, challenging way, not in media-fed adherence to fear.

Where was the computerized information age when Hitler exterminated six million individuals? Where was the compassion in the crusades, or the Inquisition, or in the buying and selling of human lives in the slave trade? People have always been capable of great evil, and blaming technology or lack of the One True Faith doesn’t help recognize and deal with the nature of that evil.

Meh. I need to stop whining about politics. But before I drop the subject completely, I came across a World of Warcraft image that I took as part of a humorous story a while back. I didn’t see the resemblance when I took the screenshot – someone pointed it out later in an IRC channel.

George and Laura

George and Laura, or “Chimp Gone Wild

(“Laura” is my old character Erice, a warlock. “George” came in a gift-wrapped box from the WoW equivalent of Santa.)

Do you want the terrorists to win?

I guess it’s a sign of how I perceive the world to be that I can’t bring myself to give this entry the title I want, which is “I want the terrorists to win,” or even give it the title it has without adding this disclaimer. Yes, it’s irony, dammit. Bloggers seem to love online quizzes, so I figured I’d post the results of one of the better ones I’ve taken:

Do you want the terrorists to win?

Your ‘Do You Want the Terrorists to Win’ Score: 100%

You are a terrorist-loving, Bush-bashing, “blame America first”-crowd traitor. You are in league with evil-doers who hate our freedoms. By all counts you are a liberal, and as such cleary desire the terrorists to succeed and impose their harsh theocratic restrictions on us all. You are fit to be hung for treason! Luckily George Bush is tapping your internet connection and is now aware of your thought-crime. Have a nice day…. in Guantanamo!

I have to admit I totally failed the quiz linked on the results page: “Do you drink Republican cool-aid“. Zero percent.

In other news, Mr. “I have a PhD and I’m not afraid to use it” has won. Again. I came up with an alternative that followed all of his rules, and he changed his rules and turned it down flat. If this wasn’t about the artistic opportunities of a 10-year-old kid I wouldn’t even care, but I guess working parents have no business wanting kids to play music.

Back to work

It’s good to have some pressure to write again… now I’d just better be sure that lunchtime meetings don’t lose me my day job.

Killing hornets with a baseball bat

Way too many people are writing about politics these days, and most of them are smarter than me on the subject. But it’s election day, and I’m despondent for the future, so what the heck. I’ll post this tomorrow, whatever the results.

Read More »

Love enough to break a heart

Terry Pratchett just gets better. I’ve always loved the Discworld books (except the first two; they’re okay, but not up to the standards of storytelling of the later ones). The stories are so imaginative that it’s easy to forgive a few places with sloppy point of view or a climax that drags a little.

I think one of the reasons his books work so well is that you have to suspend so much disbelief that it leaves you open for unexpectedly touching moments or drama that, if you’d consider it outside of the Discworld context, would be clumsy. “Reaper Man” and “Soul Music“, for instance, are surprisingly moving stories.

The third Tiffany Aching book, Wintersmith, is probably the best I’ve ever seen him write. Even if it is in the teen section. While it might be being marketed as young adult, that seems due to its thirteen-year-old heroine rather than any attempt to write down to a junior market. There’s still plenty of boozing, innuendo (“Is this about sex?” Tiffany asks Nanny Ogg) and musings on what the Nac Mac Feegle wear under their kilts. If Nanny doesn’t add any verses to “The hedgehog can never be buggered”, well, she hasn’t done that in a while.

What do you need to make a man?

Iron enough to make a nail,
Lime enough to paint a wall,
Water enough to drown a dog,
Sulfur enough to stop the fleas,
Poison enough to kill a cow,
Potash enough to wash a shirt,
Gold enough to buy a bean,
Silver enough to coat a pin,
Lead enough to ballast a bird,
Phosphor enough to light the town,

Strength enough to build a home,
Time enough to hold a child,
Love enough to break a heart.

With apologies to Winston

Open Source is the worst form of software except all the others that I’ve tried.

I’m still in pain from migrating my mail system from mireille (my server in Tool, TX) to kirika (my supposed replacement server in Plano, TX).

With one exception, every package has somewhat adequate documentation, but none do a very good job of explaining the connection between this package and all the others that are required. Mail Transfer Agent, spam checker, virus scanner, delivery agent, authentication agent, management / configuration utilities, mail server (the piece that your mail client actually connects to) – all of these have to work together. If they don’t, you will a) lose legitimate mail, b) get inundated with spam, c) act as a relay for spammers / malicious software, d) any or all of the preceding.

There are HOWTOs around which cover subsets of the whole system, but I haven’t found a single one that adequately covers everything. Then, we used the most complete HOWTO to set up the mail system at the office. A few months later, a stupid configuration mistake in this instructions led to a cumulative problem that caused our mail system to go into meltdown, and took a few days to fix. Still, I had everything mostly working (having done it before) in just a couple of days.

The one piece that has woefully inadequate documentation is the mail server component, cyrus-imapd. It supports “virtual domains”, which I need, except that the configuration utility supports a different implementation of virtual domains, which required some serious hacking. And then it’s not directly compatible with its own authentication server. That took many hours googling, and I found the workaround by accident in an unrelated thread. And even so, it can’t support my primary domain, which required a “roll-your-own” kludge on my part.

The upside is that the 25,000 spam emails or so that I’ve accumulated in the last few months has dropped to 3-4 per day, which I can live with. It’s definitely been worth the effort.

All this makes commercial packages look attractive. In a homogeneous system, all of the parts designed to work together will be documented together. Until you start to consider that the main reason I’ve had so much trouble is that I’m trying to do something not quite standard. I dread to think what an Exchange admin has to go through to do anything that wasn’t directly intended by the developers. At least I can do what I need, even if it’s painful.

Now, just another twelve or so domains to migrate… (sigh).