Writing: Ambience

What works—and what doesn’t work—for me when I am writing fiction:

1) I cannot listen to music. Any music of any kind. Back when I was a punkrock whippersnapper I could listen to any music while I wrote, provided it did not contain LYRICS. Jazz, classical, ambient, anything. As long as the human voice was not present, I was good to go. But now, and I have no idea why this is the case, I need to tune out everything in order to write. Music to prep and to unwind is fine; but I need silence in order to compose.

2) I cannot READ fiction while actively engaged on a fiction writing project of my own. (With one exception; see below.) This is also a fairly recent development. I don’t know why but reading fiction messes me up when I am trying to write it. I haven’t read a single novel for the 18 months or so that I’ve been writing the BALLARD trilogy of e-novellas. So my nightstand has featured lots of journalism, science writing, philosophy/religion, and …

3) Comic books! For reasons equally unbeknownst to me, I CAN read graphic novels while writing fiction. They don’t interfere with MY rhythm or cadence or “voice” the way other kinds of fiction do. Besides, I mainly just try to look at the pictures, anyway. 🙂

4) It can help, sometimes, to have a drink. One drink, on certain days, at certain points in the story, makes things flow and can allow me to take chances and embark on flights of fancy I might otherwise reject or not even come up with in the first place. But never more than one drink. More than one drink and I start listening to music and do not write anymore.

5) I have to get SOMETHING done every day. My “average” output is in the 500-1,000 words per day range. But that’s so much an “average” as to be almost unmeaningful. What IS meaningful, for me, is: write every day, even if it’s only a few lousy sentences. Five straight days of 100 words per day, struggling and squirming all the way, is better for the project than two days out of five at 500-1,000 words per day. I don’t know why. I just know that I’ll be in a better place overall if I do not skip days.

6) I don’t get anything that’s worth a damn in under 2 hours … and nothing good happens after 4 hours. That window constitutes my sweet spot.

7) I REALLY REALLY REALLY have to work hard to ignore the internet while writing fiction. Twitter is especially pernicious given it is my chief source of news these days: that rabbit hole is always just one click away. I have not yet come up with a foolproof way to stay offline while writing.

8) Dreams are NEVER useful as fodder for writing. I mainly dream adolescent James Bond alien invasion epics in which I save the world; I have dubbed these “Mikey Kiley action adventure dreams.” They are ridiculous and fun (at least for me) but completely useless as a source of ideas for my work. (Except for the sense of the apocalyptic which suffuses almost everything I write and which I am convinced results from being taught how to hide under my desk at school during the Cuban missile crisis in order to survive a nuclear attack.)


The next one: BALLARD bonus expeditionary force

While BALLARD motor court is speculative science fiction and BALLARD the republic of dogs is an apocalyptic western, the forthcoming BALLARD bonus expeditionary force is (at least so far) proving to be a kind of fantastical documentary inspired by the mashing up of two historical events.

The first of which is the march on Washington, D.C., of the Bonus Army in 1932; the second is The Rolling Stones’ tour of North America in November, 1969.

Whether my re-imagining of what happened in Anacostia Flats in the 30’s laced with more than a soupçon of the genius and ultimate tragedy (at Altamont, the free concert that killed the 60’s) of the barnstorming Stones will work is anybody’s guess at this point. But it seems to be forming with a will of its own … which, in my experience, is a very good thing.

More excerpts forthcoming over the next few months leading to publication this summer …

The origins of BALLARD the republic of dogs

In BALLARD motor court, there is a moment in which Ballard is alone in the convenience store. He is checking packing lists and listening to a radio program on the life of the composer Bohislav Martinu. The radio announcer talks of the bell tower in which Martinu spent his childhood: his father was a fire warden; the family lived in the tower so that they might look out over the town and countryside for signs of fire.

While listening to this radio program, something inside Ballard clicks and he begins to realize what has happened to him and who has saved him from the attempt on his life. That moment, the program and Ballard’s reaction to it, formed the beginning of this new book, BALLARD the republic of dogs.

The first scene I wrote (in screenplay form, actually) was from what ended up being the fifth (of six) chapters in the book: RC in a bell tower. Looks out over the desert floor through binoculars. Thinks he sees trouble coming. Alerts the town below. But is proven to be mistaken as the threat is merely dust thrown up by an approaching car.

BALLARD the republic of dogs was then written—forward and backward—from that one scene.

But … in reality, “The Republic of Dogs” dates back 30 years. I made several attempts at that time to write a just-pre-apocalyptic story about a community huddled on the edge of a desert, plagued by attacks from packs of dogs. Its theme, embarrassingly enough, was that the viciousness of the dogs paled in comparison to the wretchedness of the humans in the desert town.

Mercifully (for the sake of literature), I was never able to take that story anywhere, and all I was left with was a title that continued to haunt me through the years. And to which I ultimately returned when the BALLARD universe began to take shape.

I don’t know how it works for writers with greater talent than mine. For me, these ideas seem to percolate for ever, in various forms through the years, and then, one day, when I’ve lived long enough to become good enough to give them life, they emerge, as if for the first time.

Some quick notes on BALLARD the republic of dogs

BALLARD the republic of dogs is now available for sale on all the usual e-reading platforms.

Like its predecessor, it contains a selection of my own black-and-white iPhone photography as chapter headers. It’s about 28K words (compared to 23K for BALLARD motor court), which makes it longish for a novella.

There are six chapters in BALLARD the republic of dogs. Each chapter consists—for reasons that will become clear by the end of the story—of 14 sections.

The first chapter takes place 63 years ago. The second chapter takes place 50 years after that. Chapters three through six take place Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, and The day after tomorrow.

All six chapters are set in the fictional California desert towns of Clarksdale and Vicksburg; all six chapters are set in our world, as it might have existed, or might one day exist.

Readers of BALLARD motor court will notice that while the same character names are employed in BALLARD the republic of dogs they are attached to people who are different ages, professions, and even genders from their motor court incarnations. You can see this most easily on the About page.

I don’t honestly remember why I decided on this naming convention. It was probably a boring reason, though, so just as well.

I’ll write some more on the composition of BALLARD the republic of dogs over the next couple of weeks. But, to be honest, since I’m already 15 pages into the final BALLARD book (BALLARD bonus expeditionary force), I’ll have to reconstruct those thoughts from the dim mists of August through November of 2012. As a result, some fibbing may ensue …

I hope you liked BALLARD motor court and I hope you will like BALLARD the republic of dogs even more. I don’t know if it’s a better book or not. It feels like it is to me. But you’ll decide that, of course.

Ballard (the republic of dogs)

Ballard walks into Clarksdale, looking over his shoulder like a man with a hundred hell-hounds on his trail. There’s a howling out on the desert floor.

He mutters to himself. —We live in a republic of dogs.

It’s soon after midnight; half-moon hanging lazy in a night sky flecked with stars. Ballard sees Joe, padlocking the church door. —Little late for services, preacher?

RC (the republic of dogs)

—Weather not fit for man nor beast, says RC to himself. —Weather not fit for man nor beast, he keeps repeating.

The heat rises off the cracked clay road in waves. The road is empty; RC walks down the middle of it in the uncanny noonday hot.  Hot that can make a body sit down and ponder why he’s out in it and not out of it.

Pascal (the republic of dogs)

Pascal moves back and forth between the tables and the F-150, lugging foil-covered plastic bowls, plastic jugs of water. Ballard follows her on these journeys with cases of beer and soda pop; smacks her ass when the opportunity presents itself. She shrieks:

—I am too damn old for this tomfoolery!

He sidles up next to her, traps her against a table with his hip, arms full of cases of cans; whispers with his hand on her rounded belly:

—You’re 50, baby; I’d say we got us a goddamned miracle right here.

Lulu (the republic of dogs)

Lulu drags a wicker chair over the rough wood of the porch so that she is sitting next to the old woman. She pulls out a folder of black-and-white photographs. Ballard leans against the porch railing, eyes scanning down the wash along the side of Athena’s property. Sees some dogs scurrying through the brush.

—There are ghosts in these pictures, Miss Athena. In those days, to make a picture, you had to leave the lens open for a long time. That created … anomalies. People who moved into or out of the frame during the exposure time often left behind ghost images of themselves. You can see some of those in these flood photos.