Monday, March 22, 2010

The Joys of Research

It's been a while since I had to do anything resembling serious research for a book or story. Much of what I write leans heavily enough towards science fiction and fantasy that I can, in the main, get away with maintaining an idea file as opposed to having to do any actual research. Years ago - by which I mean decades - when I first started my idea file it was little more than clippings from the pages of Popular Mechanics. They had a section in the front that was all about upcoming future tech, and I found it inspiring enough to clip them and save them. I have no idea where that folder disappeared to over the years, but that was my first effort at keeping ideas from outside sources together in one spot.

In the intervening years, the internet has made it a little easier. I have a folder of bookmarked stories and reference web sites that contain items I might one day use, or have an ongoing need for (such as a story done by the Boston Globe on the future skyline of Boston). Most of those, however, are reference materials. The kind of thing I consult when I need to verify something, or have to put a little dose of realism into something.

For the current project, however, I'm back to actual research. This is a warm-up for the next project, I think, which will require much more hard research and possibly note-taking. That's the next one. For this one, I'm essentially browsing through a number of resources, tracking down ideas and concepts while I play around with various plot elements and characters. I'm looking for things off the beaten track, too, which makes it a bit more interesting (and also challenging).

In some ways, the internet makes this a lot easier. I am in need of monsters, and a quick Google search for "monster encyclopedia" netted me a number of places to start. All neatly categorized and organized alphabetically, too. This makes it nice when I have a rough idea of what I'm looking for, but there are drawbacks. I have books on my shelves that are the print equivalent of a lot of these internet sources (if not quite so complete and thorough) and what I find useful about them is being able to grab one and sit down with it over lunch, browsing through the pages to see what catches my fancy.

It's also easier to set a book aside on the desk, and write something with it open. For some reason switching back and forth between program windows just doesn't flow as smoothly for me, and something always suffers in the process.

Then, of course, there is the siren call of all those linked items in an article. It's far too easy for me to go wandering down the digital rabbit hole chasing link after link. In a book this is much less of a danger, in part because it means flipping back and forth, and in part because I have noticed that in books they are more likely to offer a brief explanation. On the web, the tendency is just to provide a link, and assume people will click it if they want to know more. Which, of course, I do, and hence the passage of hours before I realize just how much time I've spent.

However, while that doesn't help my productivity, it does satisfy my curiosity and desire to learn. Sure, it adds to the already massive library of useless and random items stored in my head (picture that warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, only bigger. Much bigger.) but I operate on the philosophy that, as a writer, I never know when one of those little nuggets might come in handy. Details count, after all, and even if something doesn't become a major plot point, being able to flesh out the small stuff makes the big stuff better.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have more research to do.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Deja Vu All Over Again

During my trip to the library this week I was perusing the limited selection they have (it's a small town library, and I wasn't up to making the trip to the nearest large library this week) and found myself reaching for a book by one of the authors I read. Only, I was pretty sure I'd already read this one, which is why I hadn't picked it up the last time I saw it. I read the inside cover... and it seemed familiar, but the first few pages did not.

I am now convinced I haven't read it, mainly because a quick perusal of pages in the back revealed a scene with a bulldozer, which I know for a fact I have not read before. It did leave me wondering why it was I was so convinced that I had read it, though, and I think I've come up with the answer.

Or at least what I hope is the answer, because the alternative is that I'm reading books and forgetting that I've read them. (Some of you may be thinking to yourselves, "That'd be great!" because you could go back and rediscover old favorites. I am inclined to think this would not be great. After all, how else would I know to skip all those chapters on cetology in Moby Dick?)

One of the drawbacks to getting books from the library is that, unlike a trip to the bookstore, I can't stock up. I know about how many books and by what authors I can read through in the alloted time, so I generally don't have to renew them. But this means that in any given trip, I have to make choices. Which means I may pick up a book, read the inside cover - which I do even when I know the author and have a good idea what the book will be about - and then opt not to get it that trip because another book/author does a better job of capturing my fancy for that trip.

Which leaves me in the position of sometimes having picked up the same book, and read the same jacket copy, multiple times. Creating the impression that I've read the book, when in fact I haven't read anything more than the inside covers. I'm not sure if this says something about my mental acuity, or the art of writing good jacket copy, or just that the passing of time is catching up with my brain. But it was good to solve this little mystery.

Even if it still leaves me with that nagging feeling that I've done it all before.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Somethings Just Don't Work in Translation

If you've been reading steadily here - which would be difficult to do as I've not been posting steadily by any means - but if you have you'll probably have noticed I have a slight affinity for comic books. (Or "graphic novels" if we want to sound more adult about them. But there's a distinction between the two, and I'm not going to indulge my inner geek in that debate. Not in this post, anyway.) I am also a fan of Stephen King and a few other authors, who have recently found themselves translated into the more visual medium of comic panels.

Not always successfully.

Sometimes this is simply a question of the visuals presented on the page not working as well as the ones in my head. Movies are subject to this as well, and I could list a few that failed to live up. (So too television shows - I like Joe Mantegna as an actor, but he was just not Robert Parker's Spenser in those A&E movies. Robert Urich is a different story.) I recently picked up a comic version of one of my favorite King short stories, N., which is a somewhat Lovecraftian homage that was for me genuinely creepy. Some of that was simply having come upon empty country fields - none with odd stone circles, thankfully - when I've been out and about, and appreciating the sometimes inherently spooky quality those places have.

The comic didn't convey that same atmosphere, and it was simply a clash between what I had in my head for the story, and what the artist put on the page. Sometimes the imagination works better when it has less to go on, even a normally visually-oriented imagination like mine. The stone circle on the page, and the field, and everything else, just didn't match up what was in my head, and the result lost all of the creepiness I'd felt reading the short story.

Other times they can be a disappointment because they simply rehash old material. Another series given the comic treatment was King's Dark Tower books. I was at first ecstatic, because here was a world where I thought there should be lots of potential. King wouldn't be writing them, but he had signed off on them, and here was a chance to learn more about that world. Alas, they lost me after the first two issues, in part because rather than do something brand new, they started by retelling a story already told in the books (specifically the events of Wizard and Glass) and so they lost the advantage of starting fresh.

The logistics behind that decision have become apparent now that they've moved on to their next installment in the DT comic series, which is a brand new story, the events of which were set in motion by the events in W&G. So if you were a new reader, you need to read W&G first, but... I wasn't. As I suspect a lot of fans out there were not. And I also suspect I was not the only one disappointed by the retread.

(I have not, as yet, picked up the new DT comic series, though it's on the list of things to get around to reading.)

There might also be retreads that I might actually want to read, were it not for the sloppy artwork. Marvel is retelling the early Anita Blake stories in comic form, and I was looking forward to rereading those in that form, until I realized all the characters in the comic looked almost exactly alike. It was nigh impossible to tell who was who, aside from the lead heroine. Which is a drawback to any medium that relies on the visuals - if they're not of the same caliber as the story, it's going to detract from the end result. (Vice versa, too, of course.)

There are also those comics that were really good, and innovative, even though they were based on source material from movies or films.... that then got trashed and made irrelevant by the continuation of the movies or television series. The Star Wars comics come to mind, and that's a whole other series of rantings from me, especially in the wake of the last set of movies. This particular gripe is also why I generally don't read any of the fiction set in any of the sci-fi universes (Star Wars/Trek in particular). The movies or television shows are regarded as canon, and it's too easy to follow a certain set of events only to find out they "didn't happen." This takes some of the joy out of it for me.

None of which means I'm going to stop reading comics, as even those based on original stories can be just as disappointing. (Yes, yet another rant there. Especially regarding my beloved Spider-Man.) It just means I have to learn to temper my hopes sometimes, and realize that for some stories, I'm going to be better off with the original.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Guilt of Putting It Down

I have no problems turning off a bad tv show. Or changing the channel on a boring movie. I've started to listen to an album only to realize there's only one decent song on it, and switched to something else. All of which I do without remorse. Books are another story. For some reason, putting down a bad book is hard to do.

Putting down a mediocre book is almost impossible.

I'm not sure why I feel guilty about not finishing a book, about taking the bookmark out when it's only half completed it's march to the last page. It seems to be much stronger when it's a book from the library. (Certainly there were books I was assigned to read that I put down without compunction, nevermore to pick them up again nor feel a twinge of regret for having done so. Even so, those were few and far between.) I think part of it is the idea that I picked this, I chose this particular book, so I owe it to myself to validate that selection by reading through it.

Sometimes I think it's a question of just the wrong book at the wrong time. There have been one or two books where the first time I checked them out I wound up returning them unfinished, only to get them again some time later and take them to completion. I don't often give books second chances. Usually it's only when I know it wasn't the fault of the story, or when it's a particular author whom I'm trying to give another redemptive shot to. In part this comes with the recognition that once I've put a book down from an author, I'm much less likely to get another one from them. (This has kept me reading authors who have long since managed to lose their spot on my "must read" list, by sheer hope that someday they'll pen something to find their way back onto that list.)

So I know, when I put a book down without finishing it, that author just got a black mark from me, and the odds of my getting another book from them have dwindled significantly. This means it is a major undertaking, a severing of either a well-established relationship, or the ending of what might have been a promising long term endeavor. I don't set a book down without consequences, and as a reader I tend not to be very forgiving.

Some of the guilt is also tied up with other people's expectations, especially if it's a story I'd heard good things about. Then it becomes a question of, everyone else loved this. I don't. Ergo there is something wrong with me, as a reader, that I don't get how awesome this is. It's not really a valid argument, I know, and speaks more of my own insecurities than anything else, but hey, we all have our neurotic ticks. This just happens to be one of mine.

Sometimes it's simply the reluctance to abandon a project once it's started, and often for reasons that make up only part of the whole. I'm finding myself struggling through Under the Dome right now, for example, because I absolutely cannot stand one of the major characters. I just want someone to put a bullet through his head, and suspect instead I am stuck with him for the next thousand pages or so. Abandoning the book now just because of one character feels slightly treasonous. Yet I have a hunch I may do so, and know also I'll check it back out again eventually.

Only to perhaps feel guilty all over again if I put it down a second time.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Slog

There are times when, even though you know you need to do it, even though you know you're going to do it, you still don't want to do it. You might be tempted, as I am frequently, to simply not do it and be done with it, but then you get to thinking about it, and you know what happens if you procrastinate, and put it off, and eventually you're just not doing it, and that makes it twice as hard to get back into the habit of doing it in the first place.

"It" can be lots of things, but it applies to anything you should be doing on a regular basis, from exercise to writing. In my case I've been doing pretty good at both, but this isn't about those times when you just sit down at the keyboard and the words flow, or you hit the gym or the pool and before you know it your workout is done. No, this is about those other times. When, yeah, you're going to do it, but it's going to be an uphill battle all the way. A long, long, long uphill battle. Like trying to roll a marble uphill by blowing through a straw.

These are the times I think of as the slog. (No, I didn't make that up. It's a real word, I swear, you can go look it up and everything. Go on, I'll wait. ... See? Told you.) Slogging does imply progress, of course, so it far beats not doing it at all. But it takes a fair amount of discipline to get through it, or even to just get started. Especially when you have distractions calling you. Not just calling you but enticing you, reminding you that you could be doing something else that will not require slogging. Like watching television. Or reading a book.

Although there have been some books where I could make a counter-argument to that, but that's another post.

This voice is especially tempting when you know, you just know, that no matter what you do you're not going to get into the rhythm of it. The slog is not one of those things that you shake off in the first ten minutes of your workout, or with the first 200 words on your daily wordcount. No, the slog will slap leg chains and iron balls around your ankles and drag you back every single step of the way. There will be no shaking it, and the last ten minutes or hundred words are going to be just as much of a struggle. There is no groove to find, no zone, no flow. Just the slog.

I suppose this is one of those things where having set goals comes in handy. If you're workout is only so long, you can set the clock, and watch the seconds tick slowly, inexorably by, tick by tick, until at least you can hop down off the treadmill or the stationery bike or whatever. With words, you just keep checking until you get there. If you go by page counts you can probably hedge some if you write dialog like I do, which means sparsely yet able to take up half the page in a heartbeat, but at least you're meeting a goal. Even if you have to trudge and plod and hack away to get there.

There is a reward at the end of the slog, but it rarely feels like it. This is the other factor to this in that, even when you're done, it still feels much the same as when you started. Yeah, you burned some calories, you wrote some words (or paid bills, or cooked dinner, or ran errands, or whatever it happened to be) and you know, intellectually, that you accomplished something. But it tends to lack that satisfying "hurrah!" moment that you might get from overcoming adversity under normal circumstances, those days when you start slow but then it's flying and you feel great afterwards.

No, the only cure for the slog is to just get through it, and then press on to another day. I take comfort in knowing that while the immediate after effects aren't any different, if I get through it the first day without giving up or procrastinating, I'm much more likely to do better the next day. The slog rarely strikes two days in a row. (That would be it's slightly more evil sister, the blahs.) The trick is to step up, or sit down, and just get it done, no matter how hard it feels or how long it seems to take.

And then do it the next day, and the day after that. Because eventually, that way lies real progress, and meeting long-term goals can do an awful lot to help overcome the slog the next time it strikes.