Sometimes You Get the Bear: A Blast from the Past

And sometimes the bear gets you.

You know, I’ve always found that expression a bit annoying.  Wouldn’t it be:  “Sometimes you get the bear.  The bear gets you once“?

Be that as it may, the subject right now is writing, in particular getting stuck.  Most of the writers I know have had the experience of sitting down to work on a project and it just won’t come.  You sit there, staring at the page (screen these days) and the words just don’t want to come.  As I said, most writers I know have had the experience and I suspect most of the others just won’t admit it.  But I could be wrong.

The term for that is “writer’s block.”

I don’t like that term.  For one thing in every other job in the world, there are times when one doesn’t feel motivated, doesn’t feel “inspired,” when the body and mind say “I don’t want to do this.” They don’t get special terms.  There’s no “bricklayer’s block” or “engineer’s block” or “corporate CEO’s” block.  But writers?  Writers get to say “I have writers block” and people nod in sympathy and maybe buy them another beer.

You know.  I think that may explain much of writer’s block.

Seriously, though, there are times when the words come easily, where the story is just there.  You sit, your fingers fly over the keyboard, and words appear on the screen.  Magic.  It’s just about the greatest feeling in the world. (Just about.  I can think of one or two others that are better.)

Then there are other times, times when you sit there and write one word.  Then you sit there and write another word.  Then one more, each word like giving birth to a porcupine . . . breach.

And the thing is, at least in my own writing, there’s no difference I can tell between the results of the “easy” writing and the “squeezed out one agonizing word at a time” writing.  They’re just as likely to be good (as in “saleable”) or just as likely to be dreck.  Some of my published work is one, some the other.

The interesting thing is, writing for me rarely falls between those two.  It’s either one or the other but never, say, a little struggle to find the right words, or anything like that.  No, that’s reserved for editing.


Does the End Justify the Means?

I’ve never liked the expression “the end justifies the means” either in straight or ironic mode because sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Point out to someone using it ironically that there are cases where it does apply (the means of shooting someone dead is justified by the end of protecting ones family) and they’re “but that’s different” without articulating why it’s different.

The thing that got me thinking about this was the number of times when I was talking about some policy in Realpolitik terms–what might be achievable in the short run even though it falls far short of ideal–somebody will come and look at the “deal making” necessary to get the gain, sneer at the “compromise” and smuggly spout off about “The Ends (not) Justifying the Means”. It’s usually some big-L (Libertarian) type decrying that the policy in question includes a lot of stuff we don’t want–but have to agree to in order to get something we do want and which is actually a net movement in the direction we want to go.

So the way I have generally encountered it is being used in smug sanctimony to dismiss legitimate “you do what you have to, to make the gains you can” and is why we can’t have nice things.

And it’s generally Big-L types (largely because the policies I favor universally push in the “L” direction–I don’t know of anything on a public policy position which is too libertarian).

People who know me know that I lean very libertarian.  But I also have what I think is a realistic appraisal of the world and recognize that’s a minority position so I need to think more in terms of moving in the direction I want rather than magically getting my ideal society.

In my own thinking there’s three tests where (whether you call it “the end justifies the means” or not) doing something that on its own would be bad becomes justifiable in a particular situation or for a particular end:

1) The end must, itself, be something “good”. “The Holodomor was necessary to get rid of the Kulaks and enforce the collectivization of farmland in the Soviet Union” (an argument I’ve actually heard), breaks down once you recognize that “getting rid of the Kulaks” (by starving them to death) and enforced collectivization were themselves evil. Evil cannot justify evil.

2) The means must be necessary to the end. At the very least, one must reasonably believe that said means are necessary. There might be circumstances where I would have to perform emergency surgery on someone (stranded in the wilderness, for instance), but I can’t just cut someone who has an inflamed appendix open when the option of taking them to the hospital is available.  I would include as a special case in this “is the end reasonably achievable by these means”. (No, the “end” of a “fair” society is not reasonably achievable by establishing socialism.  It’s failed every time.  Whatever excuses you give for “that wasn’t real socialism” the fact remains that the attempt failed.  It always does.)

3) The “means” cannot be “bigger” than the good “end” to be achieved–even if we accepted collectivization as a “good” the lives lost in the Holodomor weigh far larger than any “good” accomplished. This one is a bit more complicated in some ways because how do you weigh, for instance, one person killing six attackers in defense of themselves–one life vs. six. But you can’t weigh it like that, or not only like that. Six who threaten the lives of innocents vs. one who does not seems to me a much more justifiable balance. And add in that the six are unlikely to stop with the one, that one isn’t just defending himself but himself and all who come after.

It seems to me the “bad” examples of “the end justifies the means” (the kind of examples used to claim that it does not) fails one or more of these tests.

The thing is, people want a blanket statement like “the end justifies the means” to always be true or always be false. This leads to twisting words around to try to make it fit that desired truth/falseness when the simple truth is that blanket statements are rarely (SWIDT?) always one or the other. The real world is more complicated than that.

If you claim it’s always false, then when you have to do something unpleasant toward a longer term goal (like, say, rise in resistance to a government turned tyrannical), then somebody points out that unpleasantness and ask if you think the ends justify the means, well, then you’re left trying to explain how by using this and so definition of words that you don’t really think the ends justify the means and lose sight of the simpler question: In this case, does it? Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. I think the three tests I gave provide a good start to determining whether a particular case does or does not.

Smoked Beef Brisket: Feeding the Active Writer (Who’s Got a Free Day).

A while back I bought a 30″ charcoal grill with a side smoker.  At the time I thought that certain other problems were near the end and it was on sale ($79, plus free shipping on Amazon Prime) so I treated myself.  And there it sat, with the box not even open since I didn’t have time to do anything with it.

I can’t find the one I got on Amazon now, but this one is close (and on sale now, although not as good a deal as I had before):

(You can click on the link to see the product listing).

Well, I finally pulled the thing out and assembled it.  I found a whole beef brisket at the store–a pretty expensive chunk of meat, but I did the math and, well, it will probably be cheaper over the course of the week than my usual fare.

So today I fired it up.  Hardwood lump charcoal (don’t care for briquettes) and apple wood pieces for smoke and got the fire started.  While the grill was heating, I trimmed the excess fat from the brisket. To season, I mixed equal amounts of coarse ground pepper, coarse kosher salt, and garlic powder in a mixing bowl then put them into a shaker.  I shook the seasoning from about 2 ft above the meat to let the seasoning “spread” and give me a moderate dusting over the entire brisket, flipping it to get both sides..

When I was done preparing the meat, I checked the temperature of the grill–about 300 degrees Fahrenheit.  This was higher than I wanted but despite fiddling with the venting, I wasn’t able to get it lower with the lid closed.  So I decided to proceed.  I put the meat on the grill and…my remote readout leave-in meat thermometer was dead.  Well, it had been quite some time since I’d used it.  So I ran out to the store to pick up a replacement.  Came back.  Temperature in the grill had risen to 325.  Not what I wanted but…not much I could do about it.  However, once it had been running for a couple of hours, the fire burned down enough to get closer to my darget temperature.Note for future.  build a smaller fire to start with.  You can always make it bigger if needed.  This also means that this project is not a “start it, go away, and come back later to see if it’s done” event but something that requires frequent checks to ensure the temperature is where it should be.

In any case, I inserted the thermometer into the thick part of the meat, closed the lid again, and went away to do other things, while coming back frequently to check.

From time to time, I found that it stopped smoking.  When that happens, I open the firebox and drop in a chunk or two of apple wood, then close up so I can get more smoke.

Once the internal temperature of the meat reached 160 I removed it from the smoker and lightly dusted both sides with crushed rosemary:

20180715_134414 web

It already looks pretty good right there, but we’re not done yet.  I wrapped the piece up in peach butcher paper:

20180715_134502 web

And placed it back on the grill to continue smoking.  Temperatures somewhere in the 200’s as I didn’t really have better control of it than that.

After about another four hours of cooking, the internal temperature reached 190.  I opened the smoker in preparation for removing the brisket to let it rest  (you can see the leave-in thermometer):

20180715_184601 web

Let it rest 45 min before unwrapping and slicing.

After resting and unwrapping, we end up with this:

20180715_192627 web

And sliced:

20180715_192858 web

I was a bit nervous about cooking to such a high internal temperature–and that was at the thick part of the meat.  The thinner sections would be even higher–because in my past experience that usually left the meat dry and rather tasteless.  But the meat here was tender, juicy and full of beefy goodness.

I served up a couple slices on a low-carb tortilla with a small bowl of low-carb barbecue sauce (several recipes for that elsewhere on this blog) for dipping but truth to tell it didn’t need it.  The meat was more than capable of standing on it’s own.

So, not exactly an “active writer” recipe since it basically took all day (11 hours from first lighting the grill to slicing the meat) but definitely worth the effort and will feed me for some time.


In the Neolithic Age: A Blast from the Past

In another Blog, the subject came up of people who claim “one true way” to write.  That if you want to be a writer, you must write this way and no other.

I answer them with this piece:

In the Neolithic Age
Rudyard Kipling

IN THE Neolithic Age savage warfare did I wage
For food and fame and woolly horses’ pelt.
I was singer to my clan in that dim, red Dawn of Man,
And I sang of all we fought and feared and felt.

Yea, I sang as now I sing, when the Prehistoric spring
Made the piled Biscayan ice-pack split and shove;
And the troll and gnome and dwerg, and the Gods of Cliff and Berg
Were about me and beneath me and above.

But a rival, of Solutré, told the tribe my style was outré
‘Neath a tomahawk, of diorite, he fell
And I left my views on Art, barbed and tanged, below the heart
Of a mammothistic etcher at Grenelle.

Then I stripped them, scalp from skull, and my hunting-dogs fed full,
And their teeth I threaded neatly on a thong;
And I wiped my mouth and said, “It is well that they are dead,
For I know my work is right and theirs was wrong.”

But my Totem saw the shame; from his ridgepole-shrine he came,
And he told me in a vision of the night: —
“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
“And every single one of them is right!”

   *  *  *  * 

Then the silence closed upon me till They put new clothing on me
Of whiter, weaker flesh and bone more frail;
. And I stepped beneath Time’s finger, once again a tribal singer,
And a minor poet certified by Traill!

Still they skirmish to and fro, men my messmates on the snow
When we headed off the aurochs turn for turn;
When the rich Allobrogenses never kept amanuenses,
And our only plots were piled in lakes at Berne.

Still a cultured Christian age sees us scuffle, squeak, and rage,
Still we pinch and slap and jabber, scratch and dirk;
Still we let our business slide—as we dropped the half-dressed hide—
To show a fellow-savage how to work.

Still the world is wondrous large,—seven seas from marge to marge—
And it holds a vast of various kinds of man;
And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu
And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.

Here’s my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
And the reindeer roamed where Paris roars to-night:—
“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,

New Release: Study in Black and Red

Kindle: $0.99 Always free to read in Kindle Unlimited.

Struggling artist Leslie Jefferson keeps finding strange paintings on dark and disturbing themes in his studio. To all appearances, from the signature to the style, they are his work. Yet he has no memory of making them. Are these paintings the product of a sick mind, perhaps even his own, or do they portend something more terrible than he ever imagined?

Study in Black and Red
David L. Burkhead

Leslie Jefferson slid the key into the lock of his apartment door.  Karen, his girlfriend, not content to wait until they were within, tickled the back of his neck.

Leslie pushed the door open and turned.  Karen melted into his arms and tilted her face up for Leslie’s kiss.

“It’s been a long day,” Leslie said as he broke the kiss. “Make yourself comfortable while I grab a quick shower.”

“Don’t take too long.”

While the apartment was in one of the less affluent districts of town, it did have plenty of hot water.  A few minutes later Leslie stepped out of the shower and wrapped a robe around himself.

A cloud of vapor billowed out of the bathroom when he opened the door.  He did not see Karen but did see the open door to his studio.

Despite the warmth of the humid air, he felt a shiver run up his spine.

“Not again.”

He crossed the hallway to the studio, his feet leaving wet footprints on the fake wood floor.  In the studio he saw Karen looking up at a painting, a big twenty-four by thirty-six piece.  Acrylic on canvas.

“Leslie, this is your best one yet,” Karen stood admiring the painting. “If a bit dark.”

The painting showed Philadelphia burning.  Thick black smoke blotted out the sky.  Tiny people ran, clearly screaming, in the streets beneath buildings engulfed in flame.

His work.  His painting.  Any inspection would show that.  From his signature in the lower right corner to the style.  Right down to the brush strokes.

The only problem was Leslie did not know where the painting had come from.  It had not been there when he had left for his date with Karen.  More than a dozen times he had found paintings in his studio, his paintings, but with no memory of having painted them.  He thought he had been sleep-painting or having some kind of fugue state.  But this one?  He had not even been home and here the painting was, a painting showing a terrible scene of fire and death.  But a painting that was clearly his work.

Where had it come from?

Getting Started in Writing: A Blast from the Past

Wrote this when I started my original “blogspot” blog back in 2011.  Not much to change, really except, well, I’ve learned more about one of my earlier inspirations/mentors that, well, put me in a very odd place in my head indeed (and make me very glad that my interactions were all long distance and strictly limited to the subject of writing).

Getting started writing isn’t rocket science.  The late Marion Zimmer Bradley defined it quite succinctly: “Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the typewriter chair and stay there until you get results.”  There’s really not much more than that.

Well, there’s not much more to it than that unless you want to write stories that sell.  Even here, it’s hard to determine any hard and fast rules.  It seems that for any rule one might name there’s somebody out there breaking it successfully.  Still, there are some things that can help.

1) If you want to write, you have to be a reader.  Read voraciously.  If you want to write in a particular genre–science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, westerns, romance, whatever–then read that genre.  But don’t read only that genre.  Stretch your horizons.  Read classics.  Read non-fiction.  Want to write Science Fiction?  Read Romance.  Want to write Romance?  Read Westerns.   Now, in addition to the reading, think about what you’ve read.  What did you like about it?  What did you dislike?  If you liked some parts and disliked others, try to figure out why.  What was different?

What you’re doing here is learning what goes into a successful story, what works for you and what doesn’t.  You can read reviews to get an idea of what worked and didn’t work for others, and that can be valuable, but in the end it comes down to what works for you and no one else.

2) Get out and meet people.  Watch them.  Talk to them.  Take notes, if only mental ones.  In the end, stories are about people.  All these interactions with people in the real world–good, bad, or indifferent–are ingredients that will go into your characters in stories.  If your only source for characters comes from reading other people’s stories your characters will seem derivative and shallow.  They will seem that way because they are derivative and shallow.  So bring some real people into the mix.

I’m not a big fan of basing individual characters on individual real people but taking a bit from here and a bit from there and one can build interesting characters that will seem real to the readers.  And that’s the goal.  They don’t have to be real.  They have to seem real.

3) Above all, write.  Write character sketches, story ideas, complete stories.  Write write write.  Then take what you’ve learned from the reading and look at it again.  What does and doesn’t work in what you’re writing?  Something not working?  Can you fix it?  If so, try that.  If not, set it aside (after all, there may be something you can mine out of that later) and try something else.

A “truism” in writing is that one has to write about a million words worth of crap in simply learning the craft.  Now, there are some exceptions to that rule (you know who you are; yes you do) but that’s a pretty good rule of thumb.  While there is a “talent” aspect to writing and storytelling they are also crafts that can be learned.  But here’s the thing, you can’t just write any crap.  You have to be trying your absolute best, writing the best crap you know how to write.

I started writing sometime in grade school.  I was, at that time, a big reader mostly of science fiction.  I was a big “space buff” and was writing mainly to get more stuff to read.  During those years I wrote a lot of story beginnings but very few if any complete stories.

Then came 1977 and That Movie.  I loved the movie.  It inspired me to write a screenplay of my own.  It inspired me to finish a screenplay of my own.  Now, my screenplay was a cheap ripoff of Star Wars.  It was a bad cheap ripoff of Star Wars.  I mean this thing was seriously bad.  I live in fear that somebody, somewhere, might turn up the only copy of the manuscript (written by hand on notebook paper) and threaten to release it to the world if I don’t pay blackmail money.  Bad.  But, it was nevertheless an important turning point.  It was the first piece of any length that I had finished.  I could finish a story.

And so my next big story was a novel written in study hall at school.  It too, was very bad.  Hackneyed, cliched, and implausible.  Oh, and the main character was a complete Mary Sue (Marty Stu?).  But, again, I demonstrated that I could complete a work of significant length.

Shortly after that I joined the Air Force and played around with writing a bit more.  I had discovered SF magazines and realized that people paid money for short work, including short work from new authors.  And so I began writing short fiction in earnest.  Most of my work in this period was still quite derivative I wasn’t having any success.  Writing was still an occasional thing with me but I’d write stories on my computer (Apple IIe), take the printed copy (9 pin dot matrix) over to the library to retype for submission, and send them out to collect rejection letters.

This was a very frustrating period but, without realizing it, I was learning the basics of the craft and the stories were getting better.  It was in 1991 when I made my first sales. (More on that another time.)

A snippet

Detective Sergeant James Ware had not yet arrived so I ordered an extra large coffee–none of the fancy names of some trendier places just small, medium, large, and extra large–with cream and sugar.

While waiting, I set my phone to browse news.  Several news outlets were making much of the rash of slasher murders.  I skimmed through three editorials using the rise in slashings as an excuse to call for more gun control.  I shook my head at that.

One headline caught my eye using the word I never wanted to see in the news.

“Vampire Murders Sweep Nation.”

This wasn’t Weekly World News or even the Enquirer.  This was Fox.

I tapped on the edge of the phone for a moment as I thought, then I tapped the article to open it.

I had gotten no more than two paragraphs into the article before realizing that if anything Matei had been underplaying the problem.  The reporter here had pulled a lot together.  Tampa, Miami, Chicago, Kansas City.  The hospital in Indianapolis had been the worst single incident, but already several hundred people had been slaughtered.

A vampire only takes at most about a quart of blood at a feeding.  Their stomachs are no bigger than human stomachs after all.  Most of their feedings are only about a pint.  It takes repeated feedings in short time to kill that way.

So you don’t end up with bodies drained of blood like you see in the movies.  Instead, you have someone with wounds to a major artery–the neck is common but not the only target–and the body is simply someone who has bled out.

If someone thinks to check they might notice the amount of blood spilled and the amount still in the body don’t match up with what should be present but even that’s not likely.  The problem comes when you have hundreds of bodies, all bearing double cuts from the fangs, many with additional teeth marks.  People start asking questions, uncomfortable questions.

The article speculated that the kills were the work of a terrorist organization, attempting to strike fear by mimicking vampire kills.  Even so, they were getting entirely too close for comfort.