Introducing a New Recurring Blog Feature: Fast Fiction

July 12, 2017

fastfictionHello everyone!

It’s been a crazy few months. Since you last heard from me on this blog Vice Media commissioned me to write and narrate an animated short that aired on HBO; the New York Times and NPR interviewed me about it; I began collaborating on a film project, and I finished my fourth novel less than a year after publishing my last one. You will hear a lot more about that from me soon on that last one, I assure you.

With all that happy news being said, I do regret how rarely I post here. Since launching this blog back in 2009 I’ve joined Twitter, I’ve launched a Facebook page, and I published my novels through Amazon. I’ve also switched jobs six times and moved three or four times. A lot has happened, and somehow I have fallen away from regularly contributing to this site.

I have an idea that would change that.

Two and a half years ago I joined a monthly writers’ group, and I give them all the credit in the world for helping me develop my craft and motivating me to stick with a first draft all the way through to the finish. When people ask me about the writers’ group I say, “I wrote two novels in my twenties, and I’ve written two novels in the last two years since joining the group.” It really has been a terrific experience, and we begin each and every single meeting by picking a sentence at random out of a book, thinking about it for a couple of minutes, and then writing a piece of fast fiction –ten or fifteen minutes, no edits, and being required to use the prompt sentence at some point– that we then read to each other before moving on to talking about everyone’s projects in earnest.

Some of this fast fiction is not bad. Don’t get me wrong: Some of it is awful, and I will not be sharing anything I deem awful here, but some of it is actually pretty damned good for a first pass on very short notice,  and even the ones that failed to get where I wanted them to go might be worth discussing from a writer’s perspective of analyzing missed opportunities.  Whatever the case may be, I am sitting on easily a year’s worth of good content that I can queue up and forget about. Having that much stuff ready to publish whether I want it or not might even shame me into contributing more regularly for the sake of variety if nothing else.

So, with all that said, let.s have a few rules in place before I jump in headfirst. My friends will probably chortle that it has taken me this long to put some fences around this whole thing. Yes, I do have rules in mind:

Rule #1: I will repeat these rules at the top of every entry so readers who come across this blog at random do not need to seek out the original thread. I guess this first one doesn’t need to be mentioned every time, but let’s say moving forward I will link here for the sake of people who might want the preamble.

Rule #2: These pieces of fast fiction were generated from a prompt chosen at random, and that prompt will appear clearly labelled before the fiction and then clearly labelled again where it appears in the prose.

Rule #3: WordPress allows me a ‘click here to read the rest of the story’ break, and that will be used before the fast fiction begins in earnest so people browsing through this blog are not overwhelmed.

Rule #4: The prose of the fast fiction shall be transcribed from my handwriting accurately: Line breaks, grammar, punctuation, spelling, what-have-you. The point of showing a 10- or 15-minute first draft is saying what you tried to do in that time, so what does editing really get me? It’s more impressive showing how few mistakes I made and what I managed to do in the time allotted rather than correcting my errors or improving my first efforts for the sake of appearances. The very rare changes I really do deem necessary shall be noted with an asterisk and an apologetic explanation at the end.

Rule #5: After the fast fiction I will include a few sentences about my first thoughts of the prompt, what I was trying to do, what I am happy with, what I am unhappy with, and some other general thoughts. These entries are less about the actual prose and more about the exercise as a whole. Post-gaming that exercise will be a big part of the end result.

Rule #6: I have all my blog posts set up to automatically go out through Twitter. If I’m going to queue up twenty or so of them into the distant future, I will schedule them to go out at 3 am. I would not want to find myself in the midst of a happy moment or a sad moment tweeting some piece of irrelevant and therefore inappropriate short prose. Hopefully a 3 am posting time will keep me clear of that concern. I also reserve the right to reschedule these posts based on other things that should take priority on this blog.

And that’s it. Let’s begin! For the first one I’m going to wave Rule #6. I know when this is going out. I will also confess I am rather happy with this one. I am picking and choosing the order I post these writing exercises, so I will start off with one of my best feet forward. Here we go!

Prompt:

Even when we drew close, he remained utterly absorbed in his work.

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Beginning – Intro and First Chapter

February 17, 2017

Cover - FinalFinally, here’s my most recent novel. It’s the first of a trilogy, and I am happy to say I have now completed the first draft of the second book. I expect it will be edited and published sometimes this coming summer.

The premise of this story is a little different than Inca or Zulu. Instead of the decline and fall of a relatively little-known civilization, I decided to write a series of books where each chapter would be something from history that I enjoy, but I will never write a whole novel about it. To achieve this, I came up with a framing device that borrows a little bit from the playful mcguffins Kurt Vonnegut was so famous for:

Beginning is the story of a man who has been alive since the last Ice Age. Living in the present day high up in the foothills of the Himalayas, he buys a tape recorder and starts dictating his memoirs as fast as he can while he awaits the arrival of a mysterious visitor who may finally be the death of him.

Here’s the Intro and First Chapter:

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Zulu – First Chapter

February 17, 2017

Cover_AmazonNext up is the first chapter for my second novel, Zulu. This was actually the first novel I wrote, but I published it second after pretty extensive rewrites in my late-twenties. While watching the movies Zulu and Zulu Dawn, I found myself wishing I could read about the Anglo-Zulu War from the Zulu perspective. The more I learned about the Zulu, the more impressed I was with their history, their culture, and their achievements. This was an iron age kingdom with a cattle-based economy on the cusp of a Golden Age that held off the British Empire for six aching months before they were crushed.

Here’s the First Chapter:

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Inca – Prologue and First Chapter

February 17, 2017

Cover_ImprovedAs I mentioned earlier in the week, I expect there’s going to be a spike in traffic to this blog in the coming days. A friend recommended I should put up sample chapters of my novels. I will start with Inca, which is my most popular book to date. It really seems to have found a home with people going to Peru as tourists, as it isn’t a travel guide or a text book.

It’s the life story of a high-ranking Inca bureaucrat: He is born into wealth and privilege; he spends his early adulthood living as a fugitive from Imperial justice; his middle years see him watch the Empire he loves tear itself apart, and by his old age he lives in the ruin of his life’s work, telling a Spanish friar to write down what he has to say so that through his words, his people will be remembered.

Here’s the Prologue and First Chapter:

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My (Belated) Favourite 15 Tweets of 2015 and 16 Tweets of 2016

February 14, 2017

toptweetsHello again everyone,

Once upon a time I made a regular habit of picking out my favourite tweets of the previous year and posting them on this site. Here are the posts for 2010, 2011, and 2012. I did 2013 & 2014 as a combined post, as I am now doing 2015 and 2016 together.

I have my tweets from @faceintheblue set up to automatically post as Facebook updates, so I get a lot of enjoyment from micro-blogging: It keeps me writing even when I only have a few seconds; it gives me something to look back on to reflect upon; it lets me engage with friends and strangers.

Anyway, if I am going to start building new content into this blog, I suppose resurrecting this little tradition will be a good place to start. It’s worth pointing out Twitter now allows line breaks in exchange for a character, so some of these tweets will use that freedom to allow multi-line structure.

Here are my favourites from the last couple of years. Enjoy!

 

My Favourite 15 Tweets of 2015

Feb 21, 2015

Through a Toucan Sam-like ability to follow my nose, I have found a bar specializing in local craft beer. I am establishing base camp…

(I tweeted this upon my first visit as an adult to Atlanta, Georgia. The beer was excellent.)

April 3, 2015

Saw my first guy out in shorts non-ironically: His legs are the same sun-starved white as his tube socks. #Toronto #SpringHasSprung.

(Spring in Toronto is often a fickle, tentative thing.)

June 8, 2015

This is a lot of rain, #Toronto. I’m pretty sure there’s a field mouse equivalent of Noah leading earthworms two by two into a shoebox ark.

July 24, 2015

A friend and I were talking politics at lunch with such gusto that the guy at the table next to us bought us a round and paid for our meal!

September 5, 2015

I have a theory that my cat’s joy in life is eating spiders while I’m away. In four and a half years I’ve never seen a spider in my home.

September 27, 2015

I just caught myself having an opinion about soup spoons: I prefer a broad, shallow bowl. Child-Me is appalled at what Adult-Me cares about.

September 30, 2015

That raccoon (or “trash panda” as I’ve lately heard them called) was the size of an obese border collie. I’m crossing the street. #Toronto

October 3, 2015

Forgot to buy cat food yesterday. My cat is having cat treats for breakfast. This does not bode well for my hypothetical future children…

October 10, 2015

Ah, the old ‘Visit your parents on Thanksgiving weekend with a suitcase of dirty laundry’ trick. It’s a classic!

October 29, 2015

Co-workers have discovered a service that rents kittens by 15-min increments. A new office threat? “I’m going to rent you so many kittens!”

November 12, 2015

#FIFA’s presidential candidates sound like Bond villains: Prince Ali Al Hussein? Jérôme Champagne? Gianni Infantino? Tokyo Sexwale? C’mon!

November 14, 2015

Thoughts on the flight: The distance between Air Canada Rouge’s seat rows is exactly equal to the length of my femur. Ask how I know that?

November 15, 2015

Disconcerting: When my drycleaner puts a note in with my suits & shirts saying, “Sorry, this is the best we can do”  but nothing is wrong.

(I never did figure out what was wrong.)

November 22, 2015

Half of the conversations at antique fairs are customers telling exhibitors what they would do if they were exhibitors instead of customers.

December 10, 2015

My co-worker has taken ordering food online too far: He just had a cup of coffee delivered by bike messenger. He’s gone mad with power.

My Favourite 16 Tweets of 2016

January 9, 2016

I’m a bachelor. I don’t know how to shop for babies. I’m about to give a 3-month-old a copy of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. He’ll grow into it…

February 20, 2016

There must be a class at Barber College about hating sideburns. I asked to keep mine as I sat down. “What? You want-a look-a like Elvis?!”

March 17, 2016

An old man asked if I was in line. I told him there’s no line at the bar.

“Aye? Then it’s a race, then!” He said.

I won.

#StPats

(This was on St. Patrick’s Day at a crowded Irish pub. I ruled that place with an iron fist. No one seems to understand the importance of eye contact, tipping early and well, and knowing what you want when it comes to getting a bartender to serve you over someone else.)

March 31, 2016

Shooting some of the best pool of my life on a first date. This was not the plan.

April 21, 2016

I’m trying to think of the last time I bought new underwear when I was not also out of clean underwear. So far nothing. #BachelorLife

(The hashtag #BachelorLife is a barrel of laughs, by the way.)

April 24, 2016

Just thinking about lucky rabbit feet: How lucky can they be? The rabbits had four apiece, and it didn’t do them any good.

May 22, 2016

I just passed a man walking a dog so pregnant the word ‘gravid’ came to me unbidden. That was one gravid bitch, technically speaking.

May 27, 2016

Some say I chose the Procrastinator’s Life. I disagree. The Procrastinator’s Life chose me… Eventually.

June 17, 2016

Sentences you don’t expect to say? I’ve joined my mother & father at a high-end hotdog joint to hear what Dad describes as, “A Hootenanny.”

(Note: This may have been tweeted after midnight on the 18th. If so, I stayed at the ‘hootenanny’ for a long time. It was a lot of fun!)

June 18, 2016

After the first stop, the only free seat on an otherwise sold-out bus is the one next to me. I feel like a leper: A leper with elbow room.

June 23, 2016

If I can liken my work computer to a dog –and I believe I can– it is starting to look like the last twenty minutes of Old Yeller in here.

(I did not end up having to put my computer down.)

July 8, 2016

‘By the skin of my teeth’ is an expression in the Bible. Exactly how much dental plaque do you need before you start calling it skin?

August 9, 2016

Trump gets that it’s not a dog whistle if everyone can hear him, right? I’d make a slide whistle joke, but he’s in trombone country now.

(This was when Trump said Second Amendment People should do something about Clinton after she wins the election.)

September 24, 2016

It’s interesting how often men in their 60s refer to table salt as ‘White Death.’ Oh, they still eat it, but they know they’re doing wrong.

October 20, 2016

“Trivia starts in 15 minutes. It can get a little loud.”

“That’s my fault,”” I admit.

The cafe’s polite laughter confirms it is true.

November 20, 2016

Baileys on the rocks? Check.

Music from 30-300 years before my birth? Check.

Very old Santa hat? Check.

Let’s decorate a Xmas Tree!

#HoHoHo


Epigrams

September 20, 2016

epigramHello everyone,

I believe I have mentioned several times both on this blog and via Twitter that I am active redditor. I don’t think I would be surprising anyone by saying one of the subreddits I frequent is /r/writing, which puts me in touch with other writers all over the world to talk about our craft. Yesterday someone asked, “Do you have a quote/song lyric/poem at the beginning of your book?” The general consensus seemed to be it usually does more harm than good, but I do include a couple of quotes at the start of each of my novels. I read and write historical fiction, and the little extras like epigraphs, maps, and end notes from the author are pretty common in that genre. I went on to list the quotes I used for each book and why I chose them, and within six hours I had received a message from someone who bought one of my books based on my post.

Well, that certainly got my attention!

Several times on this blog I have talked about why I wrote something or how I wrote something, so why not take that random post on reddit and expand upon it here?

Cover_ImprovedLet me begin by saying for each of my three novels to date I have made a point of sourcing two quotes that I believe reference my plot and help fit my book into a larger literary space. For Inca I went with:

“Explain your words so that I can understand them.
They are like a tangled skein.
You should put the threads in order for me.”

— Act 1, Scene I of the Quechua play Ollantay

and

“Tempus edax rerum.”
Time, the devourer of all things.

— Ovid

I chose them because the book’s premise is an Inca bureaucrat translating his memoirs into Spanish before his story is lost to time. The Inca had a record-keeping system of knotted string called quipus, so using a line from an old Peruvian play about putting the tangled threads in order is a direct reference to what the narrator is doing as he tells his story. For a long time I toyed with the idea of actually calling the book The Tangled Skein, but eventually I decided that would be a very poor choice from a marketing perspective. Still, I know these two quotes have resonated with my readers. A couple years back I even received an email from one man saying he planned to get, “Tempus edax rerum” tattooed on his arm.

That was not an eventuality I envisioned when I first starting writing the book!

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Why and How I Wrote Beginning

September 2, 2016

Cover - FinalHello again everyone,

Shortly after publishing Inca I wrote a blog post explaining what led me to write about that empire and its people. A year later when I published Zulu I blogged about what drew me to the story of that kingdom and its people. I suppose now that Beginning is in the process of going live across the various regional Amazon websites, the time has come to talk about why I wrote this book.

Unlike Inca and Zulu, where my interest was first sparked by looking for more information about a civilization I did not know much about, Beginning began with me being self-conscious about my work. I suspect most writers after they have written a couple of books start worrying their stuff is all of a type, and maybe not the type they would have chosen if they had to do it over again. I have written two lengthy novels about cultures that are relatively little-known to my friends and family. If I wanted to write something much shorter with a broader appeal, what would that look like?

Inca and Zulu, much as I love them, ask for a lot of a reader’s time and attention. You cannot do a deep dive into the history and culture of people who most people are unfamiliar with while worrying about word count. They are by necessity long and dense. If I was free to write something where I knew my readers would understand everything from page one, what would I write about?

I have come up with half a dozen answers to that question so far, and most of them exist as a hundred pages or so of abandoned first draft material. One of the primary hurdles about completing a novel –long or short—is that you have to be excited about the subject matter and the plot and the characters for months and probably years of research and writing before you have a finished first draft to start editing and polishing. There were a lot of false starts as I searched for something I was sure I would finish. For maybe two years I despaired of finishing a third novel for want of an idea I knew would hold my interest.

I firmly believe writers need to read widely and deeply to develop their own craft. One of the most flattering things I have seen in the reviews for Inca is when someone says they can see some of Gary Jennings’ Aztec in my own work. Zulu was very much inspired by the early few decades of Wilbur Smith’s work. So who should I take as my muse for my third novel? Who writes the shorter novels that I adore?

I cast about through a few options, but again and again I kept coming back to Kurt Vonnegut.

Let me say categorically that Beginning is not a Kurt Vonnegut-esque novel, much to my regret. I lack his brevity and his wit. I am just telling the story of how I got started, and I started with Vonnegut.

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