Jeffrey Ricker's Blog, page 7
October 3, 2016
Some people talk to their therapists, or their bartenders. I talk to the people who cut my hair. When I was getting a trim earlier this week, we got on the topic of tattoos. She had lots, and I only have a couple. I want another one, a larger one, but I want it to be something meaningful to me, and I haven’t quite figured out what.
“I have this recurring dream, though,” I told her.
Snip snip, comb, tug. “What’s your dream?”
“Well, I’m in this desert landscape, and I’m following a coyote.
(Awesome coyote photo courtesy of Josh Felise, Unslpash)
“And he goes into this house that’s out here in the middle of nowhere, and it’s kind of surreal because it has openings for windows but no windows, you know?”
“No windows. Weird. What next?”
“Well anyway, he goes inside and I follow him in, and he goes into a bedroom where there’s a bed, and he crawls underneath the covers like he’s hiding. But when I walk in, I can see the lump under the covers that’s him, so I say, ‘You know I can see you.’ And he says, ‘I know.’” (Because if a coyote talks in your dream, that just makes logical sense, right?—ed.)
“And that’s when I wake up. So I’ve been thinking a tattoo of a coyote, but I want to figure out what he stands for first.”
“Naw,” she said. “You’re the coyote.”
“Yeah. And the desert, that’s so surreal and barren, you know? Have you ever been to the desert?”
“I lived there for four years when I was growing up.”
“Maybe there’s something you still need from the desert. Maybe you should go back.”
She kept cutting and combing, and I said, “Maybe I should.”
So, there’s your writing prompt, which is kind of a mad-libs type prompt: take an animal, a landscape, and a building—they can be of any kind—and write something incorporating all three. Meanwhile, I’m going to see if I can’t figure out what my coyote tattoo should look like.
September 26, 2016
I’m always impressed by artists in one medium who can excel in another medium as well. This recording by Philip Glass (Spotify link) has got me thinking about playing the piano again.
I’m not sure why I’m drawn to this so particularly. I’m pretty sure it’s in a minor key, and I’ve always felt more like a minor than a major; there’s something sort of conditional about the minor keys, like they’re getting away with something and they’re trying to keep you guessing which way they’re going to go next.
Sounds kind of like writing, to me.
I don’t have access to a piano at the moment, but in grad school I got to play nearly every day on a pretty nice grand piano (that would quickly go out of tune because people would leave the windows near it open all night; cold and humidity? Not a good combination for pianos). I took lessons from my friend Anita, a wonderful PhD music education student, and I miss that (and her, and lots of people from grad school). At that time, I knew writers who were musicians, architects who were painters, and musicians and scientists who were painters and musicians and poets, and I pretty much envied them all—and at the same time felt like this one-trick pony who could sort of string words together and make them fake sense.
The thing I’ve realized is I’m not a one-trick pony, though. I’ve played piano off and on since I was about eight; it’s just that I never stuck with it or had the consistent opportunity to do so (pianos are, after all, a) big, and b) expensive). Likewise, I was able to get out of gym classes in high school and keep taking art instead, something I continued to do when I got to college where I took drawing and ceramics classes. I had a drawing instructor ask me once, “Why aren’t you an art major?” And I had to stop and think about it. Why wasn’t I?
In the end, I think it was arbitrary. If you want to learn something, if you want to get good at it, you’ve got to keep doing it. I didn’t start out making decent ceramics or drawing recognizable faces, but I stuck with it long enough to become competent. Same with the piano. When I was eight, I played long enough to reach the point where I’d start playing the teacher accompaniment, because her part was always the most fun. But then I’d stop for a while—in this case, “a while” being seven years—and I’d lose that competence.
True confession: I don’t know how to ride a horse, so maybe I shouldn’t be using this analogy. I’ve only been on a horse once that I can remember. They’re beautiful animals, and I’d love to know how to ride. But I’d have to spend a lot of time on horseback, I think, to accomplish that.
I haven’t even stuck with writing consistently since I started. There were years in my twenties, when I was just out of college and trying to make a living, where I didn’t sit down at the keyboard or pick up the pen to work on stories. It is, however, the thing I’ve stuck with the most consistently, for the longest time, throughout my life. (The other things I’ve stuck with most consistently are running, Star Trek, and beer, but at least two of those don’t count, and the other one I do mostly out of adrenaline and spite.) It’s the horse I’ve ridden the longest.
If you want to get good at something, stay on the horse.
September 19, 2016
If you follow me on the Twitter or the Facebook or the Instagram, you might have heard about this already, but I figured it was worth mentioning again here. I’ve got a story coming out in Issue Two of Foglifter Journal. It’s a relatively new litmag published in San Francisco and dedicated to writing by queer writers. My story, “Shepherd,” is a little queer and a little strange, and features (surprise, surprise!) a dog. I’ll share a snippet of it a little closer to publication date, but in the meantime, go check out the magazine.
And hey, check out the list of contributors for Issue Two. Look who I’m just below: Jewelle Gomez! I read that and thought, “OMG, I’m going to be in the same magazine as Jewelle Gomez? Am I worthy?” Not only that, but five (FIVE) writers I met when I was a Lambda fellow. It’s gonna be like old home week in print!
September 12, 2016
I’ve heard of some writers—I’ll be honest, I can’t remember their names at the moment, so this might be one of those “My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it’s pretty serious” kind of things.
Wait, where was I? Oh, right. Some writers don’t like to read heavily when they’re deep in their own writing. Me, I don’t think I could function if I stopped reading for that long. I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction recently because, surprise, that’s also what I like writing a lot. Here are the three that have captivated me the most recently:
This novella by Nnedi Okorafor won a Hugo Award this year. (If you’re a fan of science fiction and fantasy, you may have heard some of the controversy surrounding a bunch of frightened straight white guys who have been outraged that speculative fiction by people who are—gasp!—writers of color have been getting published and actually winning awards.) Part of me read it simply to be contrarian—I like tweaking the sensibilities of straight white guys sometimes, who mistake equity for discrimination. Here’s the thing, though: it’s just a really darn good story. It’s about a girl who’s the first of the Himba people to get a place at Oomza University, the best institution of higher learning in the galaxy. On her journey there, things take a bit of a left turn at Albuquerque, and she suddenly finds herself caught in the middle of a conflict that has nothing to do with her, but she might be the only person who can stop it before more bloodshed occurs. It’s edge-of-your-seat reading that’s also beautifully written.
The William Gibson novel that is credited with starting the cyberpunk movement may be a little bit dated in terms of some of its technology—it was published in 1984, after all—but it’s absolutely prescient when it comes to our always connected society, and it’s also a gripping story of data thieves, sentient AIs, and a shady and reclusive business clan overseeing their affairs from orbit, and often cryogenic sleep. Think a smarter version of The Matrix about twenty years before anyone thought of The Matrix.
This science fiction story by John Chu, I choose to read as a love story, really. It’s between Jake, a cyborg—whom a peace treaty now classifies as a weapon—and Tyler, a substantially modified human, both at odds, one of them very likely for his own survival and that of his kind. It’s tense and flirtatious and the game Go plays an important part in it. I’ve never played, but after reading this, I’d be interested in trying.
So, what are you reading?
September 5, 2016
I’ve been thinking a lot about revision lately, mainly because I’m in the middle of a big one. When I do my revising, I always start with a hard copy. This is probably old-fashioned—really, I’m not a Luddite; no, I mean it, stop laughing—but it serves a purpose, I’ve discovered. First, I think it allows me to step back from the actual process of writing. When it’s literally on paper, I treat it differently than I do when the words are on screen. You’d think I’d approach them with a greater sense of finality, right? I mean, it’s concrete when it’s on paper.
Instead, I end up doing things like this:
I can see the bigger picture when it’s on the page. Literally, I spread out several pages at a time and can see more of the whole story than I can in the rectangle of text viewable at any given time on the screen.
But something else happens when I transcribe those handwritten edits into the file. I rethink, second-guess, mull things over, undo my changes combine chapters, and sometimes, I’ll delete entire pages at one time. That one revision step, then, turns into two or three or, sometimes, more. So, for example, while I’ve made revision notes on the manuscript up to chapter eight, I’m also working on transcribing chapter four, after deleting half of chapter three with a plan to cut down chapter four and combine the two. Because what I noticed as I was revising is that the pace needs to pick up, a lot.
I don’t know if I would have recognized that if I was strictly working on the screen. Maybe I would have, who knows? All I know is, this works for me. Because it’s the way I make myself do the hard revisions. The things where you’re looking beyond just moving a sentence, deleting a dialogue tag, or fixing a continuity error.
And sometimes, something will come at you right out of left field—or maybe right field, depending. It’s been a while since I played baseball in Little League. Anyway, my point is, as I’ve been working my way through the edits I’ve made so far, I hit on an idea for my main character that would change how much he knows (or rather, how much he doesn’t know) at the start of the book. It would really put him in the soup, which would be a lot more interesting, I think. However, it would also put me in the soup, as it would require rewriting everything I’ve already revised.
I’m going to at least try it, because I can’t know for sure if it’ll work until I see how it works out on paper. If it makes a big difference with the first couple chapters, I’ll know it’s worth going to the effort the rest of the way through the book. And I think it’ll pay off when I get to the middle, which is always the trickiest part of a book for me.
Wish me luck.
August 22, 2016
When it rains, it pours, I’m telling you. And not in the bad way, either. Ever heard the phrase “plot bunnies”? It’s a story idea that refuses to go away until it’s written.
Here’s what I mean:
I’m working on revising the sequel to The Unwanted. (No, it still doesn’t have a title. I’m hoping that by the time I reach the end, I’ll have thought of one, otherwise I may just put a bunch of random words in a hat and start drawing them out.) At the moment it’s eighteen chapters long, and I’m just about finished editing the sixth chapter. This doesn’t exactly mean that I’m a third of the way through the novel; there are broad narrative stretches in later chapters where I’ve scattered random bracketed notes that say helpful things like [MORE HERE] and [FIX THIS]. I think by the time I reach chapter thirteen, I’ll be pulling out my hair. (And since I’m growing it long again to donate, pulling it out’ll be so much easier! But anyway.)
I’m also going through the novel I wrote in grad school and discovering some problems with it. Mainly, it’s got a muddled middle. It needs a dramatic kick in the pants, plotwise. So I’ve been reverse engineering the outline.
I’m sure that the combination of these two priorities is why every other day it seems like I get a new idea for a short story.
Now, I love short stories. I love reading them and I love writing them. The Hugo Awards (big science fiction awards ceremony, in case you’re not familiar) were this weekend, and the list of winners made me add several short stories to my to-read list. And they’ll probably inspire me to think up more story ideas. Short stories are tough to write, but by nature of their shorter length, oftentimes they don’t take as long to write as novels. (That’s not always true, though. One short story I finished this year took me almost three years to write.) Every time I sit down to work on the novel, there’s a voice in the back of my head that says, “You know, if you worked on (insert title of appropriate story), you could finish it and submit it to that magazine this month.”
That’s the other nice thing about short stories: the potential for more immediate gratification by publication. (Although that’s by no means a sure thing, either. Some stories I wrote ten years ago still haven’t been published.)
Maybe it’s the fact that I’m actively working on something that has my brain hitting on all cylinders as far as plot goes, so I’m coming up with more ideas than I can work on at once. The ideas are multiplying like rabbits. Hence, plot bunnies.
This proliferation of ideas is great and all, but it doesn’t much help for maintaining focus. And focus is difficult for me at the best of times. I’m easily distracted by the next bright, shiny idea; the novelty of a new story is much more enticing than the hard work of going back to the story that’s already written (and rewritten maybe ten times already) and figuring out why it’s not quite working yet.
All good writing is rewriting, really.
I know if I change course and work on one of them for a while, though, I’m going to lose the thread of what I’m working on. So, for the moment, they get written down as a sentence in my notebook, and they’ll have to wait until later. Because the novel won’t stand for being ignored. And there’s a lot [MORE] that I need to [FIX].
(Psst. I have an e-mail newsletter. You should totally sign up for it. I might surprise you with stuff you don’t get to see here, or anywhere, for that matter.)
August 15, 2016
If you ask anyone who knows me (especially my partner, the poor guy), you’ll know that when someone starts to tell me a story I’ve already heard, I start nodding, sometimes in a bit of annoyance (I’m an awful person) and will quickly rattle off the end of the story they’re telling me. Of course, this gives them ample opportunity (not to mention justification) to say to me, “Oh yeah? Well, you repeat yourself all the time!” And they’re probably right.
Okay, they’re totally right.
I worry about repeating myself. Like, a lot. Any time I sit down to write something like this blog post, I’ll get to a point where I pause and ask, “Wait, have I written about this already?” This leads to an extended period of scrolling through old blog entries, journal files, and whatnot to see if whatever topic I’m writing about has come up before. This is its own form of procrastination, I suppose.
And yet, I love to rewatch old movies more times than is either necessary or productive. (Thankfully, iTunes does not keep track of the number of times I’ve watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.) I’ve reread stories countless times as well (“Wants” by Grace Paley is high up there, not just because I often use it as an example in my classes). So why am I so irked when others repeat stories, and why does it worry me when I do it myself?
One of the things my high school art teacher said has stuck with me over more years than I care to count. I was getting into watercolors and spent a lot of time working in that medium, and she encouraged my progress. “Once you’ve done a hundred or so,” she said, “you start to get it.”
A hundred? I wondered. How long was that going to take me?
It turns out, it took me most of the rest of that year, and while I’m not sure I “got it,” I did get better. Then I started working in pastels and pretty much fell in love with those, although I don’t do any artwork these days. Still, I think her point has some bearing here, and since this week has been all about the Olympics on the news, I also recall hearing how swimmers like Michael Phelps will swim 40,000 meters in a single week of practice.
A year of watercolors, it turns out, is not really that much time. I write and revise stories, set them aside and revise them again, abandon them and then write a different story on the same theme that turns out to have more in common with that previous story than just a topic. In a workshop one of my peers said of a manuscript I submitted that it had the trifecta of love, longing, and loss, the common themes of my work. (I decided not to take this as a criticism.) Even if the characters, settings, and situations change, are they the same stories?
Repetition is practice. The stories we tell each other, on the second or third or thirtieth telling, evolve a little each time. Maybe we get closer to the truth—not of the events as they actually happened, but of their significance to us.
So if I’ve written about practice and repetition before, maybe it’s because I’m still trying to figure them out. And I’m going to work on being a little less exasperated when someone tells me the same story twice. Instead, I’ll see if I can notice how the story changes as they retell it. Maybe they’re getting closer to their truth.
August 8, 2016
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the writing advice I give. Specifically, I’ve been wondering, Why the hell would anyone want to listen to advice from me? I mean, what do I know?
During my social media sabbatical, I read a book of advice on revising the first five pages of your manuscript. It’s called (appropriately enough) The First Five Pages, by agent and former editor Noah Lukeman. It was written in 2000 and, if you ask me, it could do with a bit of a refresh. Still, it has some good advice in it, even if its examples of what not to do are a bit obvious. Because my writing group asked me to lead a workshop critiquing the first five pages of their manuscripts, though, I figured it behooved me to read this. Anyway, my point (yes, I have one) is not to offer a critique of Lukeman’s book—hey, it’s a bestseller, so what do I know, right?
Ah yeah, there’s my point. What do I know? And why would anyone think they should listen to me?
Since then, I’ve been reading a couple other books on writing: Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit by Steven Pressfield and On Writing by Stephen King, and I like two of the main messages in these. The first one gets it across in its title, and King gets it across in his introduction when he says most books on writing are filled with bullshit.
I have no doubt there’s a certain amount of—um, fertilizer in the advice I give, but here’s the thing: all the advice anyone gives is mainly what’s worked for them, or what they’ve seen work for others. Especially when it comes to writing, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. For every problem you might have with character or setting, there is a multiverse of possible solutions. If one person’s advice doesn’t work for you, that doesn’t mean your problem is insurmountable. You just might not have found the right advice yet.
For me, advice books work best when they remind me of things I already know, or when they articulate something I’ve been trying to put my finger on but haven’t quite found the words for. When I have that “a-ha” moment.
(Hang on. Wrong A-ha.)
Anyway, maybe I do know a little something. But chances are you do as well, and hopefully if I offer advice, I’ll just remind you of what you already know.
August 1, 2016
Happy to see me?
You know, if I were in any way organized, I would have planned better for my return to social media after taking a month off.
Did I take that time to assemble a backlog of blog posts full of the thrilling insights—no, wait—full of the Thrilling! Insights! that I accumulated while basking in hours of focused concentration unimpeded by the constant distraction of the internet?
Right. As if.
So what did I do while I was away from the Facebook and the Twitter and the Instagram and the Tumblr? (Okay, so I don’t spend all that much time on the Tumblr anyway.)
Well, I went and saw Star Trek Beyond, starring John Cho.
Oh hai John Cho is that drink for me?
Twice. It was really good.
But anyway, what I haven’t been doing much is working on revising my novel. I know, I know. That was the whole point of this sabbatical. But it turns out that sometimes your point is not what you think it is. Instead, I wrote three stories. Two of them were brand new. One of them was a story that’s been hanging around waiting for me to finish it for, oh, years I think. You might not be surprised to find out how many of those I have. There’s another one that’s literally about hanging around—the characters are figures in paintings on opposite walls of a museum, and they’ve fallen in love with each other as they’ve stared across the gap and conversed when the museum’s closed. One of them finally embarks on the journey to reach the other, which involves passing through all the other paintings in between them. One of these days, I hope, I’ll finish that one, too.
I also led a workshop for some members of my writing group, wherein we analyzed the first five pages of their novel manuscripts and tried to pinpoint areas for improvement. It was kind of exhausting but ultimately worthwhile (or so they told me, and I don’t have any reason to doubt them).
It still feels weird for me to offer up my advice in these ways. I mean, I’m just this guy, you know? But the great thing was how many people around the table offered their own insights as well, and how it got me thinking again about my own manuscript, wondering things like “how much backstory do I cram into the beginning?” and “is my main character really well-established from the outset?”
In the last couple days of July, finally, I found myself working on the novel again. I have a long way to go. But at least I’ve started.
I can’t say that I learned from my sabbatical that I’m easily distracted; I already knew that. It did reinforce that point, however. Without the urge to check Twitter or take pictures of every little thing and post it to Instagram, I’d pick up my phone and stare at the screen and think, what is this device for, again? It also drove home how ephemeral my digital connections with other people are. I e-mailed a few people I don’t get the chance to talk to in person these days (being in different countries will do that), and I met up with a couple people for lunch whom I don’t get to see that often, and I spent a lot of time at the bar at Civil Life chatting with my friend Jake the brewer. And I saw a friend for the first time in years when she came to town for a conference.
I also lined up a new freelance client and got the ball rolling on three new projects.
So, even if it wasn’t what I expected to be doing, I got a lot done. Focus is a wonderful thing.
I’m hoping that hopping back on Twitter and Instagram this week (I’m still on the fence about Facebook) won’t derail that focus completely. I still have a lot to do: three project deadlines, a novel to revise, and a trip to take (tomorrow, in fact, to Olympia, Washington; I still need to pack). Even after a month away, I know how easily I fall back into old habits—that’s probably why I’m perpetually trying to lose five pounds, because french fries are a habit I can’t kick. This October I’m scheduled to teach a workshop on using social media for writers, and I’m hoping to remind students that an online presence is necessary, but not to let it distract from their real work: writing.
It’s true, we teach best what we need to learn the most ourselves.
June 29, 2016
Just a gentle reminder, I’m taking the month of July off social media. I’m going to pause in my writing here so I can concentrate on writing on the page—or, actually, on the screen, but you get my point, right? Right.
Another gentle reminder, I have a mailing list you can sign up for here. Anyway!
I managed to fritter away a good portion of my morning by looking for an old friend online. I do this periodically; I don’t know why. We fell out of touch maybe ten or fifteen years ago, and what’s remarkable—and maybe a little admirable—is he seems to have no presence online, not Facebook (blergh) or Twitter or anything of the sort. For a while I wondered if he might even have, as it were, left the planet. But I found his dad’s obit from a couple years back and he’s mentioned in it, so I think he’s still out there.
There’s not really any point to my telling you that, except how many people do you know who have no trace online? I can count maybe three people, two of whom are friends I’ve lost touch with.
I sometimes think I’m a bad friend. I need to do better.
Okay, on to the links.
I think I’m going to take Kim Lao’s advice. “Why you should aim for 100 rejections a year.”
“There is no handbook for being a writer.” I sometimes wish there was.
“This has been the worst year of my life.” I don’t know how I missed this, and by that I mean both the article itself, the things that were likely going on while I was there, and the fact that I probably know some or all the complainants. I feel like I dropped the ball on all counts.
Fascinating, if morbid. CSI: Poetry. The life and death—ok just death—of poets.
In case you’ve forgotten, PRISM international (I worked for them during grad school) offers a weekly writing prompt on their website. Check out the latest.
And while we’re on the topic of Canadian literature, here’s a handy list of magazines holding contests this summer.
Let’s stay on the Canadian theme and allow me to offer a hearty bit of thanks to my friend ’Nathan Burgoine for creating this handy little graphic on how to review a book in three easy steps. You’ll note he uses a particular book as an example. (Which you can buy here, by the way.) You can also get his newest book, Triad Blood, here.
Yes! More of these! Queer YA stories that aren’t tragic.
Lastly, this strange and fascinating story that I’m still thinking about.