Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Final Answers!

OK, I'm finally getting around to finishing off Ask Me Anything! 2010. It was, as usual, a lot of fun, and maybe I'll start doing this twice a year instead of just once. Every six months seems good, so maybe we'll play again in August.

Anyway, to finish up the queries, we have a question on writing from "Quince": Some "how to" books on writing think the idea of keeping notes is pointless as this time is better spent on writing. I thought keeping a file of possible characters and plot lines for future writing would be helpful. What is your opinion? How do you organize your writing?

There's more than one way to skin a cat. Ultimately, the best answer is to do what works best for you. Unfortunately, figuring out what works best for you can be a chore in itself. If the writing's easy and the stories pour out, and yet you never make a professional sale (if selling your work is a goal in the first place), then maybe one thing to re-evaluate is the approach. But then, maybe not. There's just no way of knowing.

The caution against keeping notes can be well taken, as some folks will spend all of their time creating notes and character sketches and plot outlines and backstories and all the rest, and never actually tell the tale they want to tell. It's the writing equivalent of the "Just one more source!" malady that can afflict graduate students, who put off starting their dissertations until they read just one more source. If you're an outliner or a character-sketcher or both, you have to be able to step back at some point and say, "OK, time to actually start writing."

As for me...I'm incredibly unorganized. I make no outlines whatsoever. None. I also make no character sketches at all. None. I don't make a list of each character's physical appearances, likes, dislikes, personal histories, and so on. I've tried going this route, and it just never feels like writing to me. I always find the whole exercise a little humdrum; I'd much rather see what my characters are doing.

Part of that comes from viewing my characters as beings in themselves: I don't want to know them as well as possible before I ever write because I view my writing as the vehicle in which I get to know my characters. The benefit here is that they often end up surprising me and that I always learn things about them that I didn't know when I started.

So I'll go into a new story with only a few vague notions to mind about what the characters are like, and then I'll make up the rest as I go, finding out new things along the way. I have a story right now involving a married couple whose big hobby is big white water kayaking; their marriage isn't in the best shape because she tends to dominate him and disrespects his motivation for kayaking because of his love of nature, where she kayaks purely for the challenge and competition of it. That's all I know as I start. I don't know what things they'll tell me along the way. And that's the way I like it.

Now, with regard to the space opera project I've been working on of late, I'm not making notes beforehand -- but I am keeping notes as I go, both names of characters mentioned or introduced and locations mentioned or introduced. Otherwise, the thing will get away from me and I'll end up with continuity gaffes galore. But that's after-the-fact note taking, not generating notes before.

But again: this is all my approach. There's nothing that says it's the right one, except that it's right for me.

Roger has two questions in waiting:

You have a nom de plume. But now your Facebook page, with your real name, shows up on your blog. So Jaquandor wasn't an attempt at some pseudonym-driven privacy?

It was, initially, years ago. "Jaquandor" was created in 1998 or thereabouts for me to use on Usenet, which was the main way of discussing stuff back in the day. I'm not sure if people who posted pseudonymously constituted a majority or not, but many folks on the old newsgroups used noms de plume. So when blogging came along and I jumped aboard in February of 2002, I brought the "Jaquandor" name (or "brand") along for the ride. The plan was to continue being pseudonymous, but over time I felt that staying strictly pseudonymous was proving an obstacle to the kind of posting that I wanted to do. The "official" end of my pseudonymous posting came when I joined Green Man Review as a reviewer. I wanted to link my reviews from the blog, but they were under my real name, so I decided, hey, what's the difference.

I still use the name "Jaquandor" because...well, I just like the name and figured I'd keep using it. There was never any "moment" where I decided to "come out"; it was just a process over time. One interesting thing I've discovered is that as I reveal more and more stuff about myself, just how much of it gets no reaction at all. I think a lot of people get freaked out by "putting themselves out there for the whole world to see", and they never really consider that maybe the world will look, say "Huh", and move on to something else. I mean, there's stuff I've said in this space that I thought would surely have someone asking, "Hey, what's up with that?" And aside from the whole overalls thing, nobody has. That interests me.

By the way, I've indicated a number of times that I got the name "Jaquandor" from a comic book, an SF comic from Marvel Comics's "Epic" line, that came out in the mid-1980s, called Six From Sirius. The book was written by Doug Moench and had art by Paul Gulacy. I really would love to see more of those characters, but there were only two four-issue limited series featuring them, sadly enough. But anyway, I suddenly thought, "Hey, I can take a picture of the comic in which Jaquandor appears!" So here he is, the fat bearded gent in green:

The fate of "Jaquandor"!

He only appears in one scene, during which he briefs our secret-agent heroes as to their mission (which is basically the Cuban Missile Crisis in space). That lower-left panel is Jaquandor's last hurrah, as he is "beaming" out on their transporter thing at the same moment that something evil decides to beam in. So yes, I named myself online after a comic book character who appeared in one scene and then suffered a grisly death. Huzzah!

Roger also asks:

I'm interested in your development of faith, or lack of same. Did you grow up in a church-going family? Do you attend religious services currently? How do your current values/faith diverge from your former or current religious tradition? How has faith and/or belief in a supreme being helped or hindered you in times of personal difficulties?

Well now...there's a tough bunch of questions. In order, no, I did not grow up in a church-going family. I saw this, and continue to see it, as a wonderful gift given my by my parents; I was allowed to develop my own worldview, and to see that worldviews will continue developing all our lives. What I believe now is different from what I believed when I was in college, and what I believe now is different from what I suspect I'll believe twenty years from now. Or forty years, if I'm still around.

I do now attend church services regularly, but here's the thing: my faith is so weak that I'm not sure it can be called faith at all. It's more of a yearning, I suppose. I go to church because I love the story of it all, but I'm not sure I believe the story. I have a lot of points that trip me up on the whole thing: the omnipotent and good God who creates a world containing evil, the idea of humans as inherently flawed before we're ever born, the fact that the Old Testament openly depicts a God in whom I'm surprised anyone would want to worship, and so on. I'm just not sure that I really believe. Maybe I don't.

See, for me, the problem with saying "I am a Christian" means that I'm also saying "I am not a Buddhist", or "I am not a Taoist", or "I am not a Muslim", and so on. Any "I am X" statement implies "I am not Y". And I see too many things in other religions that speak to me deeply for me to rule them out completely. Putting it another way, the single part of the Bible that gives me the most trouble is John 14:6. The most common interpretation I've heard of this is that only those who believe in Christ will reach Heaven; everyone else does not. That passage bothers me, has always bothered me, and likely always will bother me. I cannot in my heart endorse the "Only Christians go to Heaven" view. If I get to Heaven and the Dalai Lama has been sent elsewhere, I'm going to wonder what God's priorities are.

One can probably tell that belief in the supreme being hasn't been terribly helpful to me in times of need. I just don't know that God is there, listening. What is always helpful is people.

This answer probably hasn't been terribly satisfying.

Roger also asked my thoughts on this interview with former Canadian figure skater Elvis Stojko.

From the introduction:

But some members of the skating community believe the sport's effeminate image is increasingly a problem. Last year, Skate Canada told athletes and officials to talk up the sport's toughness in order to attract more of a "hockey crowd," and three-time world champion Elvis Stojko, the first man to land a quadruple-triple combination jump in competition (in 1997) and a skater known for his butch style, has spoken out on the issue. The sport really needs to start emphasizing "masculinity, strength and power," Stojko has argued, if it wants to be taken more seriously. His remarks infuriated some gay groups, who perceived them as a slap in the face to the sport's traditional fans.

Skating does tend to seem a bit effeminate, I suppose. At times. Not always, but right now, the effeminate stuff seems to be pretty dominant (except for the Russians, who seem utterly sexless -- if there's a more robotic skater than Evgeni Plushenko, I haven't seen him). But there's always been a healthy mix of that, so I'm not really sure. Saying that men's skating should be more about masculinity and power seems possibly correct at first glimpse, but I fear that it would lead farther and farther into the dominance of jumping.

I confess that I haven't much thought about these kinds of issues within skating. I do know that I've lost touch with the sport in general the last couple of years, because for whatever reason, it doesn't seem to be as big a deal as it was ten years or so ago. I remember the World Figure Skating Championships being a big deal, always televised in prime time (at least the big events). The last couple of years, World's has been hard to find. Why is this? I'm not sure. Has the sport waned a bit? Is it "too effeminate"? I don't know. I do think that some of the personalities in the sport have become pretty outlandish, know, I just don't have a big opinion on this right now. I do think there's a degree to which the sport is kind of homogenized these days; everybody kind of looks the same, which wasn't the case during the 1990s when you had wildly different types of skaters in Stojko, Philippe Candeloro, Todd Eldridge (perhaps my favorite skater ever -- I loved the guy) and, yes, the sexless Russians (Alexei Yagudin excepted -- I thought he was amazing).

I'm not sure if the problem is too little butch as too little personality.

Finally, Charlie actually reminded me that I never answered a question that he had e-mailed last year. Basically, he was wondering about a falling-out I had with a professor in college. I was reticent to answer this one, and over time I pretty much put it out of my mind until I'd forgotten it completely, but I think it does deserve something of an answer, even if the story...well, I didn't really present the best side of myself on this one, and the "Hey, I was only 20!" excuse rings hollow at this point.

It had to do with the band director, a guy named, believe it or not, Robert E. Lee. Dr. Lee was beloved of band members and alumni, but from the outside, he was seen as a highly quirky individual. He was pretty eccentric, even by tenured college music professor standards. One time, when the band was on tour, we stopped to get lunch at a McDonalds, and Dr. Lee bought a Happy Meal. When someone asked why he'd bought a Happy Meal instead of one of the other combo meals, he replied in his typically booming voice, "Because I'm happy!" His conducting could be hard to follow at times, when he really got into a piece, because he'd dispense with the traditional beat pattern and just start windmilling his arms a lot. He'd stop a rehearsal in its tracks to suddenly give the band a lecture on why they shouldn't take up the offers of the prostitutes in the cities in Europe, never minding that the band wasn't slated to go to Europe for another year and a half. He would talk to wind players about the need, when playing their instruments, to have a "wall of teeth". (Not one person ever understood what he meant by this or why it was good.)

He had some maddening habits as well; the one that drove me batty was his tendency to cut pieces of music if certain passages were proving troublesome. He would just say "We're not going to play that part, so when you get to two measures before point D, jump to five measures after point G." I hated that. My view was that if a part of a piece was hard, you worked on it until it wasn't, and that cutting music was basically denying what the composer had written. (Obviously, my attitude on this has not changed.) He became obsessed with a modern composer whose work I didn't much like, so starting with my sophomore year, this composer's newest work was always on our program.

Of course, it was always easier to see the negative than the positive. Yes, the music cutting was maddening and yes, Dr. Lee seemed in my eyes to waste a lot of good rehearsal time talking about odd topics. But I would only realize later on other things, such as the fact that for an old guy who'd been in the band business for more than thirty years by the time I came under his baton, he was constantly looking for new pieces and new works to learn, and his general enthusiastic approach to music -- all music was singing, to him -- was, I later realized, utterly correct.

But at the time I was pretty clueless, and Dr. Lee, for all his usual warmth and gregariousness, could, at times, be amazingly tone deaf at times in dealing with people. There were times when he would say something that was so insensitive that one almost couldn't believe he'd say them. Lots of people had stories about things he'd said in that vein.

My own story, which is pretty brief, involves the European tours. The major music ensembles at college (at the time, the band and choir) would go on a European tour every four years. The way that broke out for me was that the European tour would be my senior year. However, the tour cost each student a couple of thousand dollars, if I remember correctly. I didn't have a job, and I wasn't about to try to ask my parents to foot that bill -- they were already spending enough just to send me to school in the first place -- so I decided that, regrettably, I wouldn't be able to be in band my senior year.

So on audition day, I was walking through the music building, and Dr. Lee stopped me in the hall and asked if I was going to be in band. I replied, "Do you want me to be?" He thought for a moment and said, "Well, you're not going to Europe," And away he walked. It was very blunt and, I felt at the time, very dismissive of a person who'd been part of his band for three years prior. In short, it really pissed me off, and I made little effort to keep my ire secret. Of course, what I didn't see then was that his position, however bluntly phrased, was the correct one: the entire year, for the band, would be preparation for Europe, so what use would I be if I wasn't going?

I filed that under "Live and learn" and pretty much forgot about it until just a couple of years ago, when I got home from work, opened the mailbox, and took out an envelope that was addressed with handwriting I hadn't seen since college. Dr. Lee had distinctive handwriting, and even after not seeing it for thirteen or fourteen years (whatever it had been at the time), I recognized it immediately. Inside the envelope was a brief note of apology from Dr. Lee for "what he had done to hurt me". It couldn't have possibly been more unexpected. I'd had no idea that he'd ever even been aware of how I'd felt at the time.

So yes, I wrote back, telling him basically what I admit above: that I'd overreacted to a perceived slight and never really considered, until much later, the correctness of his position. I said some things about music, told him about my life since college, and signed off. I also inquired as to his health, since it's not unusual for people who are in bad health to seek to make redress for things they've done earlier in life. Dr. Lee wrote back one more time, to indicate that he was doing just fine and planned on many more years of life (he's been retired for some time now, and I think that 1993 tour ended up being his last European tour) and that he was glad the hatchet was buried. It all felt very surreal; when I read his first letter, I remember having to stop and think a minute to remember why I'd been so pissed at him in the first place. Once I did remember, I almost immediately thought, "Oh, you 20-year-old dumb ass, he was right, even if he was kind of a dick in the way he went about it." So, chalk another ass-kicking my younger self is going to receive if I ever get hold of Doc Brown's DeLorean.

You know what keeps me up at night? Wondering what my fifty-eight year old self is going to want to come back in time and kick my ass for when he gets hold of Doc Brown's DeLorean.

And that brings Ask Me Anything! 2010 to a close. Thanks for asking, everybody!


Jason said...

Of course! Six from Sirius! I've wondered why "Jaquandor" sounded like something I ought to know... it's probably been 20 years since I saw those comics... time to hit eBay, I think.

Roger Owen Green said...

"This answer probably hasn't been terribly satisfying."
Well, actually, it was.
Certainty in these things tend to make me more nervous than you could possibly believe. Especially John 14:6, which pretty much sent me to from church as a teenager.

Charlie said...

Interesting story; thanks for posting it. I also didn't go on the 1993 Europe tour because I couldn't afford it; we should have hung out that May Term.

Dr. Lee was there for half of my band years, and I didn't really appreciate him until his successor came along. But that's a longish story itself and I won't presume to take up comment space on your blog with it.