September 8th

Kage Baker hated waiting for things. She despised anticipation, especially if she was forced to endure it. About the most she could stand happily was seeing her presents for a birthday or Christmas the night before – so she could moan and speculate and shake the packages, but only for a little while.

Much more than a long evening and her head blew up. It’s why we opened stockings at midnight on Christmas Eve. She simply couldn’t wait for the entire show until the next morning.

The very worst part of Kage’s mortal illness – at least for her – was waiting for the initial surgery. The diagnosis came quickly, after the biopsy; and after the first surgery, things were a horrible,  but undeniably swift, ride.  It was the months between April  and November 2009 that she found unbearable. That delay also happened to contribute enormously to her dying of her cancer; but it also ate away like acid at her nerves and patience even before she knew she was going to die.

And she never complained about dying. She sure as hell complained about having to wait so long for it, though.

I have been slogging grimly through the Slough of Despond these past several months, waiting to see what (if anything) was going to be done about my deteriorating vision. The first specialist referral admitted I had cataracts, but dismissed my problems as due to dry eyes – and guess what, artificial tears do SQUAT for cataracts. I bitched loudly to my doctor, and got a new referral; I saw that doctor today. And lo! Salvation heaves upon my horizon and I can almost see it!

My new ophthalmologist is a spritely little brownie of a lady, whom I suspect is going to have to stand on a box to reach my eyes. But she is all set to do it, so now I am just waiting for the surgery manager to call me with the possible dates. I am promised a call back within a week or two. The surgery itself is brief, the healing time, ditto. My eyes are too bad to hope for life without glasses, but my vision will be better than it has been in years. No more pain! No more auras, no more double vision, no more faded colour, no more light aversion!

I am so happy, I am manic. I laughed and joked all the way home frm the doctor’s office. The project is finally in train, I am assured this will happen, and my  horrid wait is almost over!

Due to pupil dilation and such, though, typing is a pain tonight. If you can read this at all, Dear Readers, it will be because Kimberly not only got me to and from the eye doctor, she has edited this blog. So I must ask your indulgence,  because aside from this brief and happy notice, I am signing off the computer for the evening now.

Oh, frabjous day!

 

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Juggling Jigsaws

Kage Baker – although she could and did concentrate on a given project with laser-like specificity – had a little personal trick for keeping her creativity interested in what it need to do. She always tried to have more than one story going at once.

Never mind metaphors like irons in the fire and pots on the stove. Those items all actually require constant, simultaneous attention, in order to prevent common kitchen and forge disasters. (Kage, as an historical re-creator, was familiar with both of those.) What she wanted was something that would sit quietly in the background, not bursting into flames, fixing her current project with the famous Hairy Eyeball and frightening it into obedience. She wanted a thug, who could lurk in the background and glower over her shoulder with the threat that – unless her main squeeze behaved and gave her some sugar – they would move in and waltz her away to a sleazy dive.

It usually worked just fine. If and when things got impossible, Kage could lay the troublesome story aside and work on something else for awhile. She could even use the process as a preemptive strike: often, working on an old, stalled or otherwise not current story line would provoke a new, fresh idea to germinate. It seemed to work on the grit-into-pearl model; if something was irritating enough, Kage’s unconscious would turn to  something prettier.

I’ve heard vague references from other writers about similar reactions. It’s well known that nothing will make you come up with cool new ideas like having a prior commitment that MUST be finished first. Apparently, deliberately getting involved in something helps attract something else: them as has, gits – as Kage’s North Carolinian mother would often pronounce.

I guess it was like fighting with your boyfriend and going out for a drink and picking up some total stranger. Except, the way Kage did it, it ended better. She usually got at least 2 stories out of the trick, and got paid for it to boot.

I have found this to also be an effective process for keeping two or more projects richly productive. I always have more than none knitting pattern on the needles at once; when the linen stitch or entrelec won’t work, you can always relax with a nice sock in a garter stitch – round and round, not even needing to reverse your fabric. I got three stories begun while working on polishing Knight and Dei – two of them have been subsequently finished, and given rise in turn to a few more seeds …

This can be regarded as a juggling version of the jigsaw puzzle technique. Only with this, you’re drawing pieces from several puzzles at once, and seeing if you can fit them together. Kage actually did this with real puzzles, by the way: if pieces had gone missing – as happens when you have cats, parrots and small relatives – you can always turn them wrong-side up and see if pieces from other puzzles will fit in the gaps. Jigsaw puzzles are mostly cut in the same dozen or so shapes – if all you are dealing with is shape, and you aren’t concentrating on the color or design, it’s amazing what you can fit together.

Of course, the really peculiar thing is that Kage thought of this truly individual form of entertainment in the first place. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing it, to be honest. And I’m not sure if she adapted it from writing more than one story at a time, or if she re-purposed blind jigsaw assembly to writing. Either way, they both worked.

Naturally, I still use as much of this as I can manage. Not the jigsaws: I think you need a mind like Kage’s to pull that one off, and I’ve never met another mind like hers. But the running two trains of thought on parallel but different tracks – yeah, that one works. I know the Bible says not to hitch a horse and an ox to the same plough, but what dooms barley (and why does it not work, anyway?) works just fine with books.

So today, I was working on the the first little errors and alterations needed on “The Teddy Bear Squad”. Most of them so far are spelling and punctuation – I type just fast, and see just poorly, enough right now that some weird combinations result. And even the best of us slip on the Oxford comma now and again … but while I was working away at that whole deal, my mind was leaping hither and yon through scenes from the zombie story.

The nicest part of this is that what was 497 words 2 days ago is now 2,245 words. And 11 pages of notes.

And, true to Kage’s time-honored system, there are at least 3 story-gems nascent in this mass of undifferentiated mother-of-pearl. Only one is getting written just now, but there is content in there for at least 2 more. Maybe a novel. It’d even be a pretty cool comic book, if I could draw …

But that skill of Kage’s,  I never could learn.

 

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Jigsaw Puzzles

Kage Baker loved jigsaw puzzles.

She was great at them, too. Even when she so ill, at the end, that she had to use a wheel chair or gurney to get in and out of the radiation therapy clinic – she had me stop in the waiting room every time, so she could do a few more pieces on the enormous puzzle laid out there. She did a lot of that puzzle. It was still not finished when she stopped coming in, so I have no idea how it ended up – but Kage was a whiz bang at it.

She liked puzzles with enormous numbers of pieces, and complicated patterns; but sometimes I got her puzzles that were all one colour and she beat those, too. She had heard that Meave Leakey, wife of Richard Leakey and one of that remarkable family of anthropologists, liked to assemble her jigsaw puzzles back-side up, to sharpen her skull-assembly skills. Kage took that as a personal challenge. I can say, with fair confidence, that Kage would have made a good physical anthropologist. If she had been able to overcome her revulsion at the sight of bones …

Which brings me to the subject of research notes. I am still spending a lot of time, today, doing research, even while I write – that’s just the way it goes, at the beginning. No matter how carefully you lay out your plot and the things you need to learn, new angles and ignorances pop up and you have to go tearing off to answer the urgent questions. Half the time, they change the actual course of the plot, too, requiring other avenues of inquiry that had not previously occurred to you.

That’s how I wrote thousands of words of notes yesterday, and 497 words of actual story. Which greatly amused some of you Dear Readers, I think, who also happen to be writers yourselves and have thus found yourself in this position. You MUST prepare for a story – I really believe that, as Kage did, and cannot overstress the importance of doing your research first. But you can never prepare enough. There is always something untoward blinking at you from the underbrush, whispering smugly: Forgot about ME, dintchya?

Crappy little overtones and metaplots and implications and second thoughts! I’d step on their spongy over-inflated heads, except they often turn out to be the best parts of the stories.

One of the best ways to combat this problem, I learned from Kage (of course). Keep your notes literally attached to your story document.

When Kage wrote on a typewriting machine and paper, the notes were paper-clipped to the inside of the folder where every day’s finished copy went. As Time increased both, she usually ended up with two bulging folders, rubber-banded together. Or one of those Cordovan-leather-red cardboard artist’s folios with the shoestring ties, with separate piles of paper and notes stuffed in it. I’ve got samples of both methods stuffed in my desk drawers even now.

When Kage changed to a computer, she simply tacked the notes onto the end of the story document. She added to the story at one end, and the research at the other – ideally, she worked her way down through the notes until they were all represented in the text, and she could separate the story from its placenta. When that time came, sometimes the original first draft was saved with all the notes intact. Sometimes she dumped them – over my loud objections every time, I must add; but it was Kage’s decision on whether she could stand the sight of the original ideas after the finished version was breathing on its own. And sometimes she couldn’t. That aversion to bones, you know.

Me, I save ’em both. My few finished projects still have their cauls to hand. All the unfinished ones will get to keep theirs, too, as I go on. Mind you, the notes for Knight and Dei are so old that they are just a thousand sheets and scraps of Corrasable Typing Paper and flattened-out candy bar wrappers:  but I’ve got ’em, and I’m keeping ’em. (For one thing, if it sells – well, the notes for the sequel are in there somewhere … )

What happens, though, is that as you go through the notes and the actual writing, it gets a lot like assembling a jigsaw  puzzle. You transfer entire blocks of rough copy from one end of the document to the other – sometimes, whole passages come straight from the notes you took, merely tidied up when you insert them. And of course, whenever you insert a passage, it sticks in your mind – it’s permanently tagged with a glowing label that says “You added this! Is it right!” And if you need to move things around, that paragraph is likeliest to get cut and pasted again.

That’s a lot of what I have been doing today. Some paragraphs have been moved and moved again, all over the place – the whole tone and direction of the opening keeps changing. The protagonist has changed genders twice and address once – and I have to get Kimberly to take me driving up in the Hollywood Hills tomorrow, because Google Earth doesn’t go close enough to the tower at the top of Hightower Drive, or anywhere on the streets that are only staircases and cannot be driven on at all. Wimpy Google Earth!

Some of my notes are now in the prologue. Some of the prologue is now in the notes. An entire clinical progression of zombie pathology has been developed, moved into long-term storage, and then abbreviated for use in about 10,000 words. It may yet end up buried in peat and recycled into fire starters.

I never, ever, understood Kage’s fondness for jigsaw puzzles. I always preferred crosswords. Now, I think I’ve invented some eldritch, insane hybrid of the two.

Gotta go, Dear Readers. I have to fill in one up and three across, and then move it 5 pages in.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Zombie Story

Kage Baker didn’t  like zombies.

Not even in October, when her fondness for all monsters was at its peak. She had no respect for werewolves – a childhood spent watching Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolfman leaves an entirely different impression of them than one spent watching Taylor Lautner. They’re equally stupid. but Chaney Jr. was like a sad, unsuccessful racing tout; the Dead Salesman of the undead, on a perpetual Lost Weekend. Lautner is just a brooding muscle boy.

But she liked both of them more than zombies.*  She was willing to admit that Romero had created a genre classic – she just didn’t care for it. Of course, Kage died too soon for what I consider the best zombie films – she never saw Shawn of the Dead or Zombieland. She never even saw the Will Smith I Am Legend, which was not too bad until the director couldn’t figure out how to end it; she neither read nor saw World War Z, which at least had some amazing visuals.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies just made Kage roll her eyes in exasperation – and she didn’t even like Austin all that much. Television was no help, either. She died way too soon for The Walking Dead, which is well thought of (though I don’t like it at all). Worse, she also missed the television shows I, Zombie and Z Nation, which I think are fantastic.  Z Nation, in fact, is the show that reconciled me to the zombie genre in the first place. Kage would have loved The Murphy.

Anyway, I have grown rather fond of zombies, in certain carefully contrived circumstances. I’ve learned to recognize their dramatic possibilities. They are off the list that my subconscious keeps of topics that are silly, jejeune, over-worked or just plain  – well, icky. There are metaphors and similies possible on the subject. My snob alarms – and I have some lulus! – have been somewhat disabled.

Today, I spent several hours on research – on diseases, protozoans, climate change, weather patterns, eccentric astrophysicists, parasitology and Toxoplasmus gondii. Consequently, today I produced close to 3,000 words of notes and then wrote 500 words of actual content on A Zombie Story.  I wish it had been the other way around, but you can’t build much until you lay the foundation, right? It may not be what I settle down to write next, but it absolutely must be written to some extent – the idea won’t leave me alone, and it’s got to be translated into text or I won’t able to get anything done.

And who knows? It may be that this will be the spur to finish something else. Sometimes what it takes to inspire one is having something else making faces from the wings. It’s having a full plate that forces one to finally pick a chocolate up and actually eat it. Being between a rock and another, equally shiny rock – that’s when one absolutely has to make a decision.

I want to write. I’m ready to write. I am damned sure going to write something. I’ll write whatever wants to be written, at least until my mind makes a decision on which road I mean to travel to the end.

It’s always a bit of a surprise, Dear Readers. That’s half the fun.

*Always excepting the zombies in Sir Terry Pratchett’s novels, of course. Those are cool.

 

 

 

 

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What Comes Next?

Kage Baker – a born storyteller and compulsive raconteuse – nonetheless depended heavily on this phrase for inspiration.

When her normal steady pace slacked for a moment, or a plot was wandering out of the Fields We Know (or at least the Fields Kage Intended …) or a character was displaying unexpected signs of evolution: she would lean back in her chair, take a firm hold on the end of her braid, and ask of the air: “What comes next?”

It often made me nuts when she did this, because she really did expect answers. Not necessarily from me – or at least, not only from me. This question was a trick one, intended to start a cascade of semi-conscious  inspiration and evoke speculation from wherever it might be hiding. Kage was more than happy if it was her own muse; but answers were just as welcome from me, the parrot, or thin, thin air. Just as long as one of us spoke up, she could build a wall off which to bounce the golden balls of her imagination. Ultimately, something developed.

She did this when she finished a project, too. Some of what came next, of course, was rewards – whatever she had been dangling mentally before her own nose for the last 10,000 words in order to keep going. A new video game, or an old favourite played for a solid week; binge-watching something (Kage was an immediate fan of binge-watching once that became possible); a trip to the very peculiar nursery behind Budu’s Diner off Highway 1 just North of Cambria. But as soon as the carrot had been dispensed and consumed – and sometimes while it was being eaten – she was already wondering What To Do Next. Kage couldn’t stand not having a project ready to start.

I could help more with that. There was a wider range of suggestions available, since they didn’t have to fit into a plot. Or, if it turned out they did need to fit into an existing story, that was where I found out about them and what had been gestating in Kage’s own tertiary consciousness that I didn’t know about yet. Most of my suggestions were mere static; or, at best, framing devices and jump-off points. But that was easier than coming up with an  analysis of how Joseph was going to sneak into a porno shoot in the 1930’s Hollywood Hills.

My ideas were not in the queue for that one. But they did produce (somehow) the chain of thought that ended up with Joseph dressed like Mister Peanut. And that’s how the process worked.

I finished a story last night; today it is with a few beta readers, who are checking out the spelling and punctuation and signal to noise ratio. My betas are all people who are intelligent, clever and basically nice people: I can trust them to tell me the truth but not make me want to kill myself.  Ideas are already coming back to me, so I can start revisions as they seem needed.

But I’m still wondering, over and over: What Comes Next? I lay awake for quite a while last night, wondering that – trying out idea after idea, to see if any of them woke that frantic hunger for the keyboard that means something has clicked. Nothing had, by the time my dreams came along and added really weird plot lines to the ones I already have. But the question is still nagging at me today, and will until I begin writing something. That, too, is how the process works.

I do keep a Story File of nascent ideas, and update them as new bits occur to me. That’s where “Pareidolia” began, riffing off a one-sentence note from Kage. It went off in two disparate directions, and eventually ended up as both “Pareidolia” and “Hollywood Ikons”. It used to happen like that for Kage, too – “The Applesauce Monster” and “In Her Father’s Light”, though years apart in topic and execution, both arose from the same research trip.

Of course, I have two quite long fragments sitting around slowly accumulating words. They are probably destined to be novels. I won’t know until the next writing fit on either of them hits me, and I see how long it’s gonna take me to say everything I have to say. I thought “Teddy Bear Squad” was a short story, at first. It may end up as one, too, before it goes to my agent; but since I already have as much I want to add as I want to remove, I suspect it will stay a novelette.

And – behind Door Number 3! – there is the possibility that a new idea will strike me out of the blue while I sit reading tonight, and blow the lid off my hesitation. And my skull, probably.

One way or another, there’s an ambush coming. I can feel it. And that, Dear Readers, is also how the process works.

 

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Dancing Tonight

Kage Baker, as I have often reported, believed in celebrating at every possible opportunity. She felt that anything could be enhanced by making it the center of a celebration. Also, the more things you found to honor with a good bash, the better life in general could be.

You like clinking glasses for a toast? Kage liked to clink everything. Fruit, pizza slices, candy bars, moo goo gai pan sarnies – if it was a treat, if it was nice and eating it made you happy, then clink it with a friend. I’ll admit you do end up wearing unusual amounts of hot cheese, brown sauce and crumbs, but the party atmosphere was worth it. Pro tip, though: if you do this in a moving car, make sure one of you keeps their eyes on the road and one of you directs the toast. Otherwise, you end up backwards on the traffic island in the middle of El Camino Real, or with an eclair in your ear.

Anyway: nothing thrilled Kage more than completing, selling or being paid for a story. This called for singing, loud praise to all the saints, loas and responsive gods, happy cries of “I-Am-GOOD!”. And of course, wild dancing around the living room. Never mind Carmen Miranda and her fruit bowl accessories: Kage danced with a parrot, any small child currently in residence, and usually a cocktail in her hand.

I’m more the quietly glowing in satisfaction type. So far, anyway. I got a little noisy when Nell Gwynne II was finished (though not too much, because it was somewhere around 1 AM) and I did jig a little when I completed and sent off Knight & Dei. If and when that one sells, I likely will howl and dance in glee. But in the meantime, I just grin and rejoice.

Today, I got a royalty check from the inestimable Subterranean Press. This is always pleasant; this one was even more so, because the books it covered were Best of Kage Baker, Where the Golden Apples Grow, and Ladies of Nell Gwynne – PLUS Nell Gwynne II! That means that Kage’s stuff is indeed still selling – huzzah! Calloo callay! And it also means I got royalties for something I actually wrote!

The delight this conveys is impossible to describe.

Inspired by this, and by Kimberly’s patiently reminding me not to leave her hanging, I put on my writing hat and necklace and sat down with “The Teddy Bear Squad”. And guess what, Dear Readers? I finished it! It’s done! It came in as a novelette, which is mercifully shorter than I had feared. It may alter considerably, but the first draft IS DONE!

Oh, what a relief …

So here’s to all of you, Dear Readers. We can’t clink glasses across the aether, but I raise my cold coffee and a handful of Jordan Almonds to all of you.

To Victory!

 

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I Will Not Be Silenced – Even By Me

Kage Baker was often urged to write a blog. She always refused, at least initially. That doesn’t mean she agreed to do it later; it means that you got one courteous “No, thank you”, and then she ignored you thereafter. Although she might cite you as an annoying, intrusive would-be parasite on chat rooms and in convention panels …

One guy bugged her about it for most of year, insisting that she owed it to her readers – that all authors owed their readers a blog, because they couldn’t write enough  to supply those readers with a daily dose of their creative output. He really did not understand that, if a writer had insufficient time to produce enough copy to keep their readers happy, spending part of their day writing a blog would not solve the problem. Even though it was explained to him – by me, in Not Very Nice Office Manager mode – over and over and over …. he only got that one explanation from Kage, though, because then I blocked his damned emails; I just answered the crap in the Spam folder because cleaning it out annoyed Kage.

I’m sure, Dear Readers, that you can all guess what annoying Kage was likely to get a supplicant.

She never wanted to write a blog anyway. Kage was mortally shy.  She felt she put enough of her private self into her writing without baring more of her soul. Also, she claimed that it was hard enough to get what she did write down into a legible form; she simply couldn’t organize any more of what went on in her head so someone else could understand it. (I believe this, having lived through a few overloads and floods …) And finally, as she used to say dryly from time to time, “I don’t want to rub off all the mystery, now, do I? When I’m gone, tell people that it’s ALL based on a true story – that’ll keep the critics interested, and my fans won’t be surprised anyway.”

The past 6 years have shown me that this last was definitely true.

Now, this is not a long-winded excuse for my stopping this blog. That’s not happening. I like doing this, and I don’t intend to stop. But it really was originally intended to explore how and why Kage Baker wrote, and what it was like living with that process; as well as trying to apply the lessons so learned to my own writing at her posthumous direction. But as much fun as I have doing this, I often feel guilty that I am not sticking to the precis: that too much whinging and whining and personal carrying-on goes on here. So every now and then I really try to re-commit my energies to the original idea. It’s amazing how much there still turns out to be to say about How To Write a la Kage Baker.

I enjoy writing both this blog and the ongoing stories. I’m not as fast as Kage, but I am succeeding at doing both; a little faster all the time, too. I just worry about wandering off the topic.

But at the moment, Dear Readers – I am whining! We have once again reached that point in the rolling year when the weather is trying to kill me. This summer has been much better than most of the last several -only about 3 weeks of really deadly heat. Still, it’s been 80 or better most of the time, which is normal for Los Angeles, but no longer normal for me. Sometimes I forget and go wandering out on errands (there being only so much on-line shopping one can do) and I always get sick. That won’t be improving – I have a dicky heart and only one kidney, which confer a permanent allergy to heat – but I’ll eventually get the new rules straight.

The cataracts aren’t helping any, though the eye patch has been a great innovation. Also, let’s be honest – it’s just cool.  Still, I cannot be trusted to pour anything into anything else – not cereal, not coffee, not water; not into a cup or a bowl or a 5-gallon bucket. It’s a darned good thing we now use pods for dish and clothes washers. I can see those. I do carom off door jambs a lot, but I did that anyway. Ground level is one of the bigger problems – I see completely hallucinatory rises and dips, so that I keep trying to step up into the wainscotting and end up kicking the wall …

But that too will end! I visit an ophthalmologist on the 8th, and intend to cry and moan and nag her into restoring my sight ASAP. It doesn’t even have to be good sight. I’ll settle for the same spectacles-dependent vision I have always had, as long as I can see without blurs, auras and migraines again. Anything better will be gravy.

And in the meantime, the heat is beginning to show signs of abating. Fall is coming; fog, the marine layer, northern winds – who knows, maybe even some rain this winter? It will eventually get cold. I will rejoice, because I’d rather wear gloves and sit at my desk wrapped in a blanket than sweat to death.

Kage wrote through the chill, despite her hating cold and complaining vociferously. I  have learned to write though the heat. I just complain about it, too …

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