Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Writers, Choose Your Strategy

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We writers tend to group ourselves into different camps.

Some are seat-of-the-pants writers (also known as “pantsers”). Some are meticulous plotters. Some are half-and-half…and no matter which type of storyteller you are, at some point you realize that your meticulously plotted story has somehow warped itself into an entirely new shape.

It’s for those days I’ve come up with my new saying, which is the title above: Writers, choose your strategy. Learn how to deal with the unexpected. And then take it from there.

Why do I say this?

Well, when your story goes sideways, that can be difficult to deal with. For many writers, writing seems like the one thing we can control in this life; when it, too, shows we can’t, that can be deeply disturbing.

Plus, even when your story is cooperating, there are times in the story where you step away from it and just have to shake your head. The villains are one thing; you expect bad behavior from them. But the moral equivalency, the bad behavior from otherwise good characters, and the rationalization that if they’re otherwise good, this bad behavior can’t be as bad as all that…where does that come from?

Quite simply, it comes from us.

We contain multitudes (hat tip to Walt Whitman). We all have darkness inside us, as well as light. Our characters can’t help but reflect that. And sometimes, the spattering of darkness and light leads us into weird corners…but we have to trust the process, and persevere.

If you’re at a weird place in your story right now, I want you to remember one thing. You may not be able to control what comes out of you, not entirely. But you can choose what to do with it once you have it.

May that bring you comfort, if it’s one of those writing days.

 

Written by Barb Caffrey

August 16, 2019 at 7:24 am

Dog Days of Summer…

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Why do they call it the “dog days of summer,” anyway?

I mean, not everyone has dogs. And those who do mostly worry about how well their dogs will do in the heat.

But perhaps that’s why…the heat is notoriously bad for most dogs, and it’s also notoriously bad for humans with asthma (raise your hands in solidarity, people), or heart issues, or those with any long-term illnesses whatsoever.

Dogs, mind you, are very cute, heat or no heat. They always let you know they love you. They want to be petted and coddled. And they certainly love their food, as unlike most humans in the heat, dogs do not care when it comes to their dinner. (Wink.)

Anyway, if you live in much of the United States this week, you know the heat is dreadful, and the humidity is worse. But if you live in Southeastern Wisconsin, you may be pardoned if you think this weather is closer to the tropical rain forests of Brazil, or maybe Malaysia, than Wisconsin.

Why? Well, our heat index is very high at the moment. That’s because the humidity is exceptionally high for this area, and it adds to the misery of high temperatures something fierce. (They may as well call it “heat misery index,” as that would be truth in advertising. But I digress.)

All we can do is wait this bad weather out. Pay attention to it, of course. Pay attention to your animals, too, and make sure they always have cool water.

And if you’re asthmatic, make sure you know where your rescue inhaler is at all times.

But for all of you dealing with the high heat/humidity mix right now, just remember this: be good to yourselves. Don’t expect miracles, as the heat scatters thought and makes it harder to follow through, physically, on any number of things.

That said, you can still do things, even in this horrible heat, if you are careful and plan well and take breaks. So do be careful, do plan well, and do take many breaks…and stay as cool as possible, OK?

How do you stay cool in the high heat? Tell me about it in the comments!

 

Written by Barb Caffrey

July 19, 2019 at 3:41 am

Risk-taking and Concerts

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A few hours ago, I finished a concert with the Racine Concert Band. I played a solo on clarinet in front of about three hundred people at the Racine Zoo; they weren’t there to see me, because we had vaudevillian Pinkerton Xyloma there and he’s always extremely popular. (He’s a man of many talents, is Pinkerton Xyloma. But I digress.)

Anyway, the piece I played was the “Pie in the Face Polka,” by Henry Mancini. It has a lot of runs, arpeggios, and is meant to be bouncy, a little jazzy (in an old-timey way), and fun.

Now, why was this a risk, as if you’ve read my blog for a long time, you know I play clarinet as well as alto saxophone? Simple. I haven’t had as much time for my clarinet in the last few years as I’d like. I’m not playing steadily in any groups on clarinet. And my health has not been what I’d like it to be, so that means I have had to concentrate on what is in front of me — the groups I’m already playing in, on saxophone, mostly — rather than other things I’d like to do in addition (that is, playing my clarinet much more often).

Even so, I’d asked to play a clarinet solo for three years running. This year, I got one. I learned it in a couple of weeks.

And then we had our rehearsal — as we have one rehearsal for each summer concert — and I thought I played terribly. At best, I got seventy-five percent of it, but between playing sax for most of the rehearsal (as I also did on the concert) and being tired to start with, I knew that was the best I could do at the time.

Of course, I practiced even harder in the intervening three days. And I felt much more confident with it tonight, even though I still made mistakes and played at about ninety percent of my own personal capacity.

In other words, I didn’t embarrass myself. And while it’s not the best I’ve ever played, it’s possibly the best I’ve played in two or three years on clarinet.

I’m very glad I had the opportunity to play the “Pie in the Face Polka.” But it was a risk. And not just because of the information I’ve already given you.

See, I was recovering from some sort of upper respiratory infection (again). My back went out (again). And during the previous Sunday night concert, I’d managed to turn my right ankle — meaning I was walking with a notable limp (and very slowly, besides).

Not to mention, it was also my late husband Michael’s birthday. (Yes, he was born on Bastille Day.) He wouldn’t have celebrated it, but he’d have turned sixty-one, had he lived. And of course I knew that…so I wanted to play the best I possibly could in honor of him, wherever he is in the cosmos. (As matter can’t be created or destroyed, I firmly believe at least a little of Michael continues to exist outside of me, somewhere and somehow.)

You see, Michael always enjoyed hearing me practice my instruments. (Any and all.) He also read any of my music compositions, as he could read all clefs, and he could talk intelligently about music. I knew if he’d have been here, he’d not have BSed me in any way, but he’d still have enjoyed himself — the ten percent I didn’t get, he’d have said was due to the vagaries of performance and art…and that who wants to hear a perfect concert, anyway? (It’s the imperfections that make it interesting, he always said.)

So, despite all the obstacles, I got it done. That’s the important thing.

And the audience seemed to enjoy it, too…even though I still think they were there for Pinkerton Xyloma! (Wink.)

 

 

Written by Barb Caffrey

July 15, 2019 at 2:55 am

Dealing with the Internet Age

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Folks, I have been thinking hard about a story I’m trying to write — and am stalled at doing, of course — so all sorts of other things have come into my mind.

For example, in the 1930s during the Great Depression, comedies — the wilder, the better — were all in vogue. Yet now, in 2019, after what some call the Great Recession of 2008 (that hasn’t fully recovered in some areas, at least not to pre-Recession levels), what’s in vogue? Depressing stories — such as The Walking Dead. Or George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” epic (AKA HBO’s Game of Thrones).

That doesn’t mean comedies can’t still find their way, mind you. But the comedies that have succeeded, such as Bridesmaids or the various instances of The Hangover (last I knew, it was up to part three), all have a darker edge to them than the ones did in the 1930s.

I hate to think that the 1930s were a simpler time, because that can’t be true. They’d endured what was then called the Great War — what we call World War I — and so many men died there, at least half a generation of men were wiped out. (Note that I say “men” because very few women fought in those days, and even those serving in hospitals and as ambulance drivers tended to be as far away from the fighting as humanly possible. Not that this was all that much all the time, of course — but it was the principle of the thing.)

But the 1930s didn’t have today’s instantaneous communication, either. While they certainly had telephones, and they had telegraphs as well (kids, think about text messaging, and then think about it going over telephone-type wires…while this is imprecise, that’s more or less what telegraphy was meant to be), they lacked 24/7 news coverage. Or the ability to wake up and know what was going on, say, in Bangladesh, even if you were asking from your living room in San Francisco, California.

I’ve read a few stories recently that make me wonder if the world at large knowing so many things at such a shallow level is actually good. Many people, just run-of-the-mill folks, feel either isolated or inundated, and don’t know what to do with themselves.

Moderation is meaningless unless it’s taught. And no one’s taught anyone online how to be moderate whatsoever.

Thus Tweetstorms. Thus random comments from 2013 (or whatever) coming back to bite people…

And that’s why some folks think it’s OK to gang up on others online, because there’s this ideal out there that you’re supposed to be perfect 24/7. And if you can’t be the pattern card of propriety (as the Regency Era would put it), you aren’t worth anything at all.

This era of ours, the Internet Age, sometimes lacks humanity. It also lacks soul. And the reason for both of these problems is very simple: there are too many people who seem to have forgotten to show compassion, or maybe to even feel it.

I don’t know what the answers are to fix these dilemmas. But I do know what you can do to try to moderate yourself as best you can amidst the screaming and the shouting and the horrors often seen.

(Make no mistake, there are plenty of horrors out there. And they should be dealt with. But dwelling on them all the time does not do any good. Back to the post.)

My simple, five-point strategy is this:

  1. Read widely, but take breaks. This means you should question yourself and your assumptions, but you also should take a day off here and there from all of this questioning and assume the world is going to keep spinning.
  2. Practice compassion toward others, even when it’s hard. Try to find someone else’s point of view if at all possible, and if you can’t, ask the other person — the one you don’t understand — to explain himself/herself/themself.
  3. Remember that every day is a new day. And that you do not have to carry yesterday’s mistakes with you forever.
  4. Do what you can to help, or at least not hinder.
  5. And finally, try to find fun amidst all the meaning in your life. Because life is very short, and sometimes the end sneaks up on you in a big hurry.

If you can do all these things, you will be able to shut out some of the yelling, the screaming, the argumentation for the sake of argumentation…and thus be able to live a better and more fulfilling life.

What do you do to find balance in your life during the Internet Age? Tell me about it in the comments!

“Writing After Widowhood” Essay Is Up…

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Folks, author and editor Deborah J. Ross asked me, a while back, if I’d be willing to write an essay for her about the differences between writing before my husband Michael died, and after. I called this essay “Writing After Widowhood,” and it is up now at her blog. Here are a few excerpts, though I do hope you’ll go over there and read it…then let people know, far and wide, about it.

(In particular, if you can leave a comment at her blog, do. I am all thumbs today, and can’t seem to get Blogger to accept my profile for love or money, meaning I can’t even comment over there. This is very frustrating. So if you can do it instead, that would be great.)

Here’s a bit of what I remember about writing before widowhood, mind:

Anyway, when Michael was alive, we wrote some short stories together despite having very different writing styles. We could do this because we’d heard Eric Flint, in 2002, discuss how he collaborated with other authors. It was all about communication, Flint said, “Also, if you could check your ego at the door, that would help immensely.”

That wasn’t all Michael did, mind you. He edited for me, as I edited for him. He and I talked about our stories for many hours a day, every day of the week, a great gift…and he made sure to do all the things a good husband does for his wife without prompting—and without fanfare.

My quote there is my best remembrance from 2002. That comment from Eric Flint was made at a gathering of Baen Barflies (or Barfly gathering) in July of 2002 in Chicago to the best of my recollection. It was only a few, short weeks after our marriage, and it made a huge impression on me.

I discuss Michael’s passing (which you should go over there and read about), its effects on me, why I decided to keep going with his stories as best I could and get at least a few of them out there, and a bit about how frustrating it was to write for a few years after Michael died.

Then I got into the nitty gritty about what it’s like to write now:

But as I started writing again, I realized something. I am a verbal processor. I need to talk my stories out with someone who wants to hear about it. And since Michael died, I really haven’t had that. Though I do have some very good friends who will let me bend their ears on occasion, they are working writers. They are doing more in the field than I am currently, and I don’t want to be a millstone around their necks.

(And yes, I listen to them. Of course I do. But that’s not the point.)

With Michael, I knew if I made mistakes, he’d fix them. Or he’d show me where I’d made mistakes, and I’d fix them myself. I had more confidence in going to write on a day I had little energy (as I have battled lifelong health issues), because if I screwed up on a name or made an unnecessary tense-shift, he’d catch it. So I could relax and create.

Those were the good old days.

And I discuss what I try to do now to get around what I call “Life, Interrupted.” I write prose notes on days I can’t do anything else. I think a lot about my stories (I didn’t say this at Deborah’s blog, but I hope it’s implied in subtext). And I do my best to keep my husband Michael uppermost in my mind on the worst of days, because he believed in me — and dammit, if he could believe in me, so can I.

I do hope you will read the rest of the essay. It’s about 1400 words long, so I only excerpted a little bit of it here to whet your whistle.

For other widows and widowers out there, or those touched by tragedy in other ways who are struggling, know that your life can continue. It is frustrating, difficult, sometimes exasperating, but you can keep creating if you make the effort. It won’t be the same — it can’t be the same — but you don’t have to lose all of yourself when your spouse dies.

It took me a while to learn this. But now that I have, my hope is that I can help others along the way.

Written by Barb Caffrey

June 17, 2019 at 1:24 pm

What I’ve Been Up To…

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I figured I’d drop in a quick blog, and let you all know what I’ve been doing the last few weeks.

First, I finished writing something for Deborah J. Ross’s blog — a guest shot — about my experiences in writing after widowhood. That should be up on Monday, she told me; when that goes up, I’ll come back and let you all know. (As you might expect.)

Second, I’ve been puzzling out a story for J.F. Holmes and Cannon Publishing for their upcoming Joint Task Force 13 anthology. This particular anthology blends military SF and elements of urban fantasy. My hero is Army Corporal (and medic) Freddie Garcas; he’s going to be fighting a vampire. I’ve found this uniquely challenging, but already I’ve learned a great deal more from some new friends (and story advisors, folks who served in the Army as I did not; I was just a military wife) to help the story ring true — or at least truer. This story is taking a lot more time to bring together than I’d expected, but I have faith in it, and in the process of writing it…eventually I will get it, and I hope that eventually will be sooner rather than later. (Wink.)

Third, I’ve been editing. (As always.) I finished up a few projects, and am now onto my next one.

Fourth, I’ve been working on trying to improve my overall health and life. This is a very tedious and ongoing process, but I think I’ve made a little progress over the past few weeks. (Slow and halting though it may be, progress is progress. Right?)

Fifth and last, I think I’ve finally figured out something that had been eluding me — and as it will take time to explain, let me just say this: You can’t make someone care about you. You just can’t do it. Even if you want it desperately, you can’t make someone else care when they don’t.

I’ve been fortunate for the most part in that while I’ve had bad love relationships and one truly outstanding love relationship, I’ve mostly not run into the “unrequited love” phenomenon. So, when I have seen it, up close and personally, I didn’t have any idea what to do about it.

Because I hate to give up on people, it’s hard to realize you have to sometimes cut your losses. (As the band Linkin Park says in one of their songs, you don’t have to like everything you do. Sometimes, you’re going to hate it. But you have to do what’s right for yourself anyway. This is a very big paraphrase of one of their songs, mind you…but the truth is the truth, regardless of the paraphrase.) And sometimes, no matter how badly you want someone to see you for you, they’re just not ever going to do it.

I’ve seen this with my friends, I’ve seen this occasionally with my family, and now, I’ve seen it in my own life. I don’t like it at all. It’s not what I would’ve chosen for the first quasi-relationship I had after my husband’s passing…but it is what it is.

It took me one Hell of a long time to process, too. I just couldn’t believe it. This isn’t like me, at all, to have something like this happen…I guess I’ve learned something new about myself, but it’s something I wish I’d not had to learn. (That said, I’m not going backward; I’d just have to learn this again. And it was painful enough the first time, thanks.)

Mind, I do think there’s one — and only one — good thing about this. It has made me much more empathetic to others who’ve run into this. I have felt badly, in fact, for some of my previous comments earlier in my life before I had this consciousness raising.

And, as I’ve said before, it’s all grist for the mill. Maybe it’ll better inform my storytelling at some later date, when this isn’t all so fresh and raw. (One can only hope.)

So, there you have it: that’s what I’ve been up to. Learning, living, writing, editing, working on my health, and trying not to run around screaming.

How about you? (Tell me about it in the comments, please. I’ll feel less like I’m shouting into the void that way.)

Written by Barb Caffrey

June 15, 2019 at 5:56 am

Book Recommendation: Leo Champion’s “Warlord of NYC”

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Folks, I’ve been meaning to write this blog for several weeks. I knew about Leo Champion’s book WARLORD OF NEW YORK CITY for quite some time, mostly because I was one of his beta-readers and proofread the final version. But the time never seemed right to talk about Leo’s book.

Now, the time is right. The word is given. (Abandon all hope, ye who enter here? /snark)

Leo's WarlordFirst, let me show you the book’s blurb:

In the twenty-second century, global civilization has moved into networks of arcology-skyscrapers that tower hundreds of stories above streets abandoned to anarchy. Inside the arkscrapers, a neo-Puritan cult of social justice rules absolutely; on the streets, feral gangs raid between feuding industrial tenements.

Diana Angela is a hereditary executive in the bureaucracy that runs the world, with a secret life as an assassin on the streets. A burned-out idealist, she’s long ago given up on trying to change the world – the best intentions of the past have only led to greater misery.

And she has no reason to think precinct boss Jeff Hammer’s intentions are even good. A former mercenary who may be a military genius, Hammer’s narrowly taken control of a small tenement. Now he’s facing vengeful exiles, aggressive neighbors, and uncertain internal politics.

Which might be the least of his problems now that he’s drawn the attention of one of the city’s most dangerous women…

And now, my comments.

Diana Angela, also known as DA, is a badass. There’s no question about it. She is tough, smart, strong, somewhat of a chameleon as her society requires it (she lives in the arkscrapers, and is a part of the Intendancy, an extremely corrupt yet also extremely politically correct society). She hates what she’s forced to do in her day job, and has worked all her life to do some good on the streets of New York City as an assassin.

(Yes, an assassin. And she’s damned good at it, too. But I’m digressing, and I shouldn’t.)

DA is a fully actualized woman. She cares about people and has compassion, but it comes out in very unusual ways. She also loves sex — why not? — and her society, with its beliefs that you have to do this (and “this” changes weekly, it seems) and you can’t do that (with “that” also changing weekly), makes it hard to enjoy it. (That you have to get permission for every sex act from the worst of the toadies she deals with — “Can I touch you here? Can I touch you here?” — drives her crazy. And it should.)

The fact that sex, itself, has become so far away from what it can be in taking you out of yourself for a moment and losing yourself in someone else is a huge symptom of what is wrong with the Intendancy.

Simply put, the Intendancy has got to go. But they have enormous power, and DA can only do so much topside in the arks.

She can do a great deal more on the streets, and she does. I do warn you, some of what she does is bloody and there’s a whole lot of violence. She kills people who “need killing,” and for the most part you’ll agree with her once you realize what these people have done — though in the moment, you may think, “Why be so happy about killing them?”

Diana is not a sociopath, though. She’s more of a frustrated idealist with a set of skills — judo, aikido, various other martial arts, swordsmanship, archery, guns — that allows her to live with the terrible things she has to put up with in the arks by balancing it with her vigilantism below.

But then, she realizes there’s a new player on the streets of NYC. A guy named Jeff Hammer (from Leo’s first book in the series, STREETS OF NEW YORK CITY) has overthrown the corrupt regime in his own tenement, and has started a new one. He’s an ex-flyboy (and flying, in his world, means using something akin to a bike with wings; I am not doing this concept any justice, and I apologize for that), he’s smart as a whip, and he knows things have been off for a very long time. And he’s going to do something about it…

DA goes to look in on Hammer, and can’t decide if he’s a criminal, a madman, or worse. That the last time someone like Hammer arose caused a bloodbath that DA, herself, was a part of, makes it even tougher for her.

So, will she decide to help Hammer? Or won’t she? And if she does, will NYC ever be the same?

Thus ends my plot summary, hoping I didn’t spoil it too much for you.

I still have one more comment, though: Leo’s book is damned good. Really, really good. It reminds me in some ways of Lois McMaster Bujold, even, though it’s far bloodier and DA’s overt sexuality is not something LMB would ever cotton to. I think the reason it does remind me of LMB, though, is because of the assuredness of the writing on the one hand and the capability of the female protagonist on the other. DA knows who she is, what she wants, and knows exactly how to get it…so don’t get in her way, as the only person she needs to fear is herself. (In that way, she reminds me a little of Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, or better yet of Elli Quinn or even Sergeant Taura. And if you don’t know who I’m talking about, go read every book LMB has ever put out, then come back, will you?)

In other words, you need to read this book, even if you’re normally squeamish regarding violence (as I am). It is funny. It skewers with manic glee many stereotypes regarding how “wonderful” a politically correct civilization would be if given its head. It has some interesting things to say about sex, power, and money. And the way DA is, herself, matters greatly…as does the way Jeff Hammer tries to change things for the better.

WARLORD OF NYC will make you think. And will make you root for DA, even when she’s at her most obnoxious…and wonder how on Earth she’s going to deal with Jeff Hammer when she can’t always see the forest for the trees.

It is, by far, the best thing Leo Champion has written yet. And he needs to be encouraged to write more in this vein. (Who knows what’ll happen next? I want to find out!)

Again, the Amazon link is here for WARLORD OF NEW YORK CITY. It is available on Kindle Unlimited. (Unfortunately, at this time, it’s not available at Barnes and Noble or anywhere else.) Or you can buy it outright for $3.99 (again, only at Amazon).