Saturday, January 4, 2014

Why I Haven't Been Writing

Patrick Rothfuss nailed it.  Maybe this is why he’s a New York Times bestseller.


He compared writing to working in a garden.  If you do it for the joy of doing it, it’s a wonderful thing.  You go out in the dirt, you get some sun, and at the end of it all, maybe you get some really good vegetables or fruits.


But the input almost never equals the output.  Overall, you’d be better off putting in a few extra hours at work, then buying those fruits or vegetables at a store.


But you can’t think that way.  You must write (or garden) for the joy of it.


If your world flip-flops, you’re in trouble.  If you have demands of your garden, where it must feed your family for a month, or a season, or a year, and something goes wrong, or it just doesn’t come together, or you have bad seeds, or any other number of things, well, then it wasn’t fun.


Then you’re hungry and tired and you did all that work and all you got were a few tomatoes.


And maybe the year before, you got those tomatoes and it was a bonus.  You had fun and you got tomatoes.


But this year, you were planning on those tomatoes, plus more tomatoes, and now they aren’t there, and you’re panicking.


That is, pretty much exactly, what it means when you start to think about being a working writer.




I had a friend who was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago.


There are levels of cancer, I’ve learned.  There are mouse trap cancers, where you might get hurt but they rarely do major damage.  There are bear trap cancers, which will do a lot of damage to you, but you can still escape most of the time.


And there are avalanche cancers.  The ones that roll down the hill and crush you.  On rare occasions, someone gets away, but most people just hope to slow the roll a bit.  They know the rocks are coming, though. 


And the rocks will win.


My friend was a fantasy reader.  A big George RR Martin fan.  When my friend got cancer, they joked that they were going to call George and ask how the Song of Ice and Fire (which we now all think of as Game of Thrones) ended.  They knew they wouldn’t live to see the end of the series.


I don’t think a call was ever made.


My friend was also a fan of Patrick Rothfuss.  Driving to chemotherapy, sitting around after treatments, not able to do anything but watch TV if the concentration wasn’t there and read  books if the concentration was there, my friend read through the first two parts of the Rothfuss trilogy.


They were hoping that Patrick would get the final novel out before they died, but I pay close enough attention to the series I follow that I knew it would never happen.


I hunted around online for Patrick’s email address.  I just wanted to drop him a note, and say, “Hey, I met you at a book festival and you were really nice and my friend is dying of cancer and how does your trilogy end?  I swear I won’t read it.  I just want my friend to know.”


I didn’t do it.


Not long after I went hunting for that email address, Patrick posted a blog about how behind he was in his correspondence. It was hundreds of emails.


(George RR Martin said he was something like 3000 emails behind a few months ago.  So even if my friend sent him an email, it’s likely sitting there, unread.)


I guess it’s just as well that I didn’t email Patrick.  I imagine he’d finally be reading the email about now, debating what to say, wondering if he should even answer.


My friend passed away months ago.




I started reading the Martin books right after seeing the first season of Game of Thrones.  It was a great show, to be sure.


I dove into the first book, and it took me almost three years to get through it.  I read dozens of other books in the meantime, never getting back to that first one.


I finally finished it this year.  When I finished I turned to my wife, sitting nearby, and said, “I don’t think I’m smart enough to read these.”


The Martin books are dense.  There are probably more than 100 major characters, and when you read interviews with Martin is obvious that even minor characters in the novels, ones who appear in a handful of scenes, are (or can be, or will be) important.


And there may be a 1000 of them.


When my friend got to the last few weeks, when the pain was winning and there was more sleeping than waking, I started thinking about reading the rest of the Martin books, not for me, but for my friend.  I would read them, and then go to my friend’s grave and talk about what happened.


The only problem there is, I would probably get the information, or much of it, wrong.


My friend was smart enough to follow the books.  To talk about the minor characters, who got maybe a scene or two in the early going, somewhere in book one, who might come back two books from now and finish their character arc.


I would never remember all those people.  Like I said, I’m not smart enough.


I haven’t started that second book yet.  I’m not sure I want to.




When Robert Jordan came to the end of his life, he and his family picked an author to finish up his Wheel of Time series.  He provided copious notes, a partially finished manuscript, and if I remember correctly, he walked his successor through the final plot of what was supposed to be the “last” book.


The last book, as it turned out, had to be three books to tie up all the loose ends Jordan left lying around, like so much plot flotsam.


I didn’t envy the guy who took the job at all.  Not even a little bit.  I suppose he got to be on the New York Times bestseller list a few times, and that was probably nice.  But really, it wasn’t his name bringing in the sales.


It was all those people looking for a scratch for their itch.


And the entire time, he had to know, if he missed even one little detail, the fans would be up in arms.  Things that Jordon himself probably would have blown past or declared unimportant, the new guy wasn’t allowed to miss.


And even those people who finally got all their answers, somewhere in their brains, they know that this couldn’t possibly be everything that Jordan intended.  Something, somewhere, was changed.




My friend put a message on Facebook a few months before the end, saying not to send emails or Facebook messages anymore, because they probably wouldn’t get read.


A week before that, I offered to start writing a new Blood Calling book, and to send it in chunks.  My friend could be the first reader.


My friend loved those books.  Compared them to The Hunger Games, which was an extremely generous compliment.


I thought it might be fun, providing these bits of happiness in bite-sized pieces, every few days, while the sand ran out of the hourglass.  I started writing, wanting to get a jump on the story so I could share it with my friend.


I never got an answer.  I don’t know if it was lack of interest, or if the message never got to my friend, or if they didn’t want to start another story that would never be finished in their lifetime.




I once heard a joke that if Robert Rodriguez had been writing and directing the Harry Potter movies, the last two books would have been adaptations of the movies.


Seeing as how only one person (that being the actor who played him) knew whether Snape was good or bad up until the final book was released, you’ve got to wonder if the book and the movie might have ended differently.


Then there’s the curious case of the V, the original TV miniseries.  The creator wanted to do a new series each year, updating the world on what happened to the various characters, one year after another.


Only he got kicked off the project.  The second series, labeled The Final Battle, was not the final battle.  They made a TV series out of it.  That got cancelled, so there was no ending.  I had read that the comics gave a final resolution to the series, but I guess that’s faulty memory.  A quick check on Wikipedia says that the last issue was the second part of a flashback story.  (Though another article says that the visitors decided to leave in an earlier comic.  This might be the ending I’m thinking of.)


Later, the creator of the show wrote and released a novel that gave a “true” ending, ignoring everything else he didn’t write.  So you could pick your ending.  The show.  The comics.  The miniseries.  The novel.


George RR Martin is 65, and it’s taking him longer and longer to finish each novel in his series.  He used to post his progress, but that led to too much hope and letdown in his fans.


In a few months, the fourth season of Game of Thrones will air.  A season comes out once every year, and the show’s creators have said they’ll probably have to wrap it up by season seven.


Martin told them the end of the story, more or less.  Every once in a while he makes noises about finding ways to slow down the series, to have a season come out every two years instead of every one, but the show is filled with children who are all aging at a rapid clip onscreen.


TV is relentless.  You can write a sequel novel 20 years after the original and everyone can be the same age.


TV simply can’t work that way.


The fifth Thrones book came out in 2011.  Six years from then is 2017.  Six years from then is 2023.


Martin will be 75.


If he makes it.


Martin has said there are no notes, there is no backup plan if he passes away with the books unfinished.


A theory: Martin is waiting to die, knowing that even if he finishes the books, they will never live up to the hype they’ve garnered up to this point.


People will get their ending on the show, and that, he has probably concluded, is good enough.  The pressure is off.


And if he dies, his publisher probably won’t come after him for his advance.  Instead, they’ll take whatever pages are in existence, publish them as-is, and get someone to novelize the last season or two of the show.


Assuming there’s a call for it in a decade.


Maybe.  Who knew that so many people wanted to know how V was really supposed to end that the creator would be able to novelize the “true” ending?




I’ve barely written anything this year.


One short story.  That’s it.  And the fate of that story is unknown.


It’s the garden metaphor again.


When I was writing screenplays just to write them, it was fun for a while.


Then I started making money, and writing them without the money component felt… wrong.


Actually, it wasn’t even the money component.  I was happy to write something that, when I was done, was going to be produced.  A screenplay that hasn’t been shot is just paper and words.  No one wants to read it, even if you put it in book format.


I’ve done some treatment writing since I abandoned screenplays, and yet, every time I put something together, I just can’t get excited enough to type fade in.


I know I’m going to lose days.  Weeks.  Probably months to the writing process.


And when it’s all done, and I’ve pressed print, and given to someone, it’s going to sit there.  Just so much paper.


Short stories?  Novels?


I can write the short stories, but creating just to create, I feel the time slipping away.  The truth is, I don’t really know the markets for short stories.  I read them sometimes, but in collections, and mostly just from authors I know and like.  Harlan Ellison.  Neil Gaiman.  Stephen King.


If you don’t know the markets, it’s hard to sell to the markets.  Two years ago, you could sell short stories on the Kindle.


Today?  Eh.  Not so much.  Not unless you’re writing about women and dinosaurs.  I am very much not kidding.


And barely poked at my novels, because…


Because of time.  I had none.  I had two major deaths and a family medical crisis and a full time job that brought in actual constant money, which I needed.


I could barely write because I was sad.  And stressed.  And those tiny little pockets of time I would find to write dried up like worms in the sun after a rainstorm.


It’s not a writer’s block.  It’s a sad block. 


I look at the time it takes to write a novel, and I think I want to spend more time with my family, and friends, because the novel will be there tomorrow, but they might not be.


And you might recall the old saying that no one, on their deathbed, says they wished that they spent more time at work.


And that’s it, really.


When I look at my books, I know what they bring in.  I know some of them sell well, and some sell poorly, and I know the time that I put into them. 


That time was fun.  But this last year, as I actually did the thing in the poem and raged against the dying of the light, and also parts of the medical community, I knew the handful of cash I could gain from the hundreds of hours spent at the keyboard wasn’t enough to justify the typing time.


That’s why I blogged about things pointless and stupid.  They were easy, they rarely required focus, and when I was done, well, who was going to argue with me about the plot of The Vampire Diaries?


I’ve been wanting to get back to it, saying I’ll get back to it, for a while now.


Will I?


I think I will.


I realized today that last month was probably the first time in a long time that I didn’t feel like I had a crisis in the works every single moment.  My family was safe.  I was safe.


And if I can keep that feeling, can actually let my brain uncurl and stretch and feel like making the garden is fun again, well, we’ll see what comes out.


We’ll see.




Degrassi Season 12 - Wonderful As Ever

I feel like I write this essay every year, and every year I just want to write it again.


Man alive, I love Degrassi so much.


I skip the intro to this show from time to time, but this essay I should probably do it again, because, well, I DO get new readers with reasonable frequency.


So here it is:


No, I was not a fan of the show as a kid.  I was actually only barely aware of it, as I read one novel based on the series.  (Looking at Amazon, it appears the book in question was Exit Stage Left.  I have zero memories of the plot.)


I became curious when I read a write-up by Kevin Smith, talking about how much he enjoyed the show when he was working at the store where we would eventually shoot Clerks.  I became even more curious when the DVDs of the show started coming out and I read a handful of reviews citing the show as being truly wonderful.


So when I found the first season at the library, my curiosity got to the best of me.


Convincing my wife to watch it at was hard at first, but after the first episode, it got very easy.  In contrast to every TV show we grew up watching, these kids weren’t all pretty teens with well-off parents.  The cast was ethnically diverse.  And problems, ranging from underwear to cancer, were all handled with a just-right amount of discussion and proportion.


It was a great discussion show for my wife and I.  What would you do?  What did you do?  What happens if our child does this?


And the show ended at the just the right time, I think.  Five years in, they had run through most of the issues that could be discussed.  And then… the closing TV movie.




Look, it was grim.


Not in a bad way.  Quite the contrary.  But the final episode of the series itself ended with a measure of grace and hope.  It wasn’t a happy ending, really, but it said that there could be a happy ending.


But the TV movie said that things change, sometimes for the better, but often for the worse, and often in a big way.  It was a pretty vicious ending, but an honest one that I respected and even kind of loved.


Of course, by the time we finished that series, Degrassi: The Next Generation was already in full swing.


I enticed my wife to watch it at least in part because I had heard that a lot of the original cast was still on the show.  Far from just a teen sitcom/drama, the show had taken a page from shows like My So-Called Life and invested both the adults and the kids with their own plotlines.


We. Were.  In.


It feels weird to talk about that first season now, mostly because the other night I realized that the show (now just called Degrassi) has so few ties to that show now.


When TNG began, adults from the old show appeared.  New adults had plotlines of their own that often only bounced off the kid plotlines at little angles.  The cast was, much like the original series, huge, with people getting their own plots every four or five episodes.


It was an issues show.  It was a character show.  It was a show about kids and their parents and how both of those things are difficult.


And it was, at the time, unlike everything else on TV.


They’re into season 13 how, while my wife and I are wrapping up season 12.  And honestly, after a few seasons where you could tell the writers were trying really hard to come up with new spins on old ideas, this season has been pretty stellar.


The best shows can take a bad character and redeem them, but it’s a tough trick.  Degrassi has done is a dozen times, taking characters with insurmountable flaws and building on them until you realize why they are who they are, and that they made mistakes, and that they are willing to change and grow.


This season has been particularly impressive to me because there’s been an odd underlying theme that I’m not sure was intended: Sometimes, bad things happen, it is NOT your fault, and there is little or nothing you can do to fix it.


Degrassi has never shied away from the mistakes the characters have made, and the true brilliance of the show has been that even mistakes that were long covered over or forgotten can come back to haunt you.


This season, though, things have occurred that can’t be fixed.  Not really.  One character’s alcoholic father was released from prison, and became a danger to him and his mother.  So they had to move.


In truth, someone probably just wanted the character off the show, but the reality is that bad things happen and sometimes if you’re not the cause of the problem, you have to escape any way you can.


One character’s dad was hit with early-onset dementia.  It was hard.  It hurt.  And there was nothing TO DO.


And this was on a show for kids.  Kids who, honestly, need to know that sometimes life will do horrible things to you.


In the original Degrassi series, a character committed suicide.  It was set up, carefully and well, and when it happened it was probably one of the best plotlines of the entire series.


And now, Degrassi was doing it again.  And I figured that the original couldn’t be topped…


But you know what?  They might have managed it.


Again, and I know I already said it, but actions have consequences on this show, and often the consequences are long-ranging. 


Here, a series of people blame themselves for the death of their classmate, and the way they handle it isn’t confined to a single episode.  It’s smeared messily across the show, one person after another expressing their grief, fear, and loss in horrible and often surprising ways. 


In a year of my own life where I’ve seen a lot of grief and loss, and observed the many ways it can be handled, so many of those reactions rang true.


And in a year of bleah musical numbers on Glee, a bunch of fresh songs, covers, and even a terribly sung version of I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You and I’ve Had the Time of My Life bested every musical number I’ve heard on Glee this year.


That’s the long and short of it, really.


Degrassi has accomplished so much, and part of that accomplishment, I think, is that it does things other shows should do better, but don’t.


The other accomplishment has been as it slowly pulled off so many things that shouldn’t have worked, but did. 


First, it rolled through more than 300 episodes without ever taking an extended vacation.  Add in all the original series, and Degrassi has more than 400 episodes to its name.


As the years have zipped on, it’s cycled through a ton of cast members.  Quite literally one character remains on the show from the first episode of the new series – and he was also in Degrassi Junior High.


Another thing that kind of blew my mind the more I thought about it was how many different types of shows the show has been.


Imagine, if you will, that The Big Bang Theory started as a sitcom, then shifted to a drama, then added a bunch of new cast members to the show, and then got rid of the old cast.


The newest version of Degrassi started as a parent/child show, not unlike My So-Called Life.  Then it slowly dropped out the adults from the “classic” show.  It went from being about kids in high school to being about kids in high school and college.


It got rid of the college kids.  It started adding in semi-regular TV movies, some of them an hour long and some of them two. 


It went to a telenovella style, pumping out four episodes a week. 


It went from putting out 15 episodes a year to 40 with no real drop in quality.


It was a soap opera.  It was a drama.  It was a lesson-of-the-episode.  It was a comedy.


It was a middle school show.  And a high school show.  And a college show.  And a life outside of all of those things show.  (Though now it’s basically a high school show all the time.)


It was always, always, always progressive, and pushing for social justice.  But it doesn’t shy away from multiple sides of every issue, and what it means for the people involved, and what the fallout might be.


Not bad for a series that originated out of a 30 minute after-school special from Canada.


I’ve questioned over the years how long the show could possibly run, but most of those questions had to do with the fact that the show tried to cling to their original cast.  But now those cast members are all gone, though not forgotten, and it’s clear that the show can survive as long as the people and the stories remain interesting.


Can it run forever?  That I’m not sure about.  The thirteenth season is on the air now, and I’ve read that casting for season fourteen has begun.  But as the years roll out, there’s less and less chance that new people will pick up on the series, I think.  A favorite character will leave, and some people will drop out, and no one new will show up to pick up that slack.


It’s just a matter of time.


When that time comes, I hope they capstone the series again.  Snake (or Archie, or Principal Simpson, however you think of him) can drop yet another f-bomb on Canadian television.  Maybe they can burn the school down again, or maybe…


I don’t know, maybe this time they can come to a semi-happy ending?




Personally, I’d love for the show to go out on that same note of uncertainty that it did the first time. 


It’s the Degrassi way.