December 20, 2015

Victory Tastes Like Butter


It’s been a quiet few months here at the blog. Most of my writing efforts since the end of August have focused on the first-ever championship tournament at TheWriter’s Arena. For those of you who don’t know, The Writer’s Arena is a weekly one-on-one writing competition in the spirit, say, of Iron Chef.

I’m usually involved in the Arena as a judge, though I have competed twice before. In round 3, I lost to Arena regular Albert Berg. In round 34, I lost to JosephDevon.

So I was extremely flattered when I was asked to compete in the championship tournament, one of four outside writers against the four Arena regulars. I accepted without hesitation, thinking that, win or lose, it would be a fun time. But, in the back of my head at any rate, I did go into the competition with a great deal of writerly insecurity. I serve as an Arena judge, but I’m not a famous author. I don’t have a novel to my name. I hadn’t even won a round against one of the Arena writers.

What right did I have to sit in judgment on other storytellers?

The second week of the championship again paired me against Albert Berg. Not only had I lost to Al before, I also consider Al to be probably the best all-around writer in the Arena. It’s a delight to see how he rises to every challenge, varying his writing style to suit the story. He’s good.

The semifinals paired me against Joseph Devon. Joseph is, to my best knowledge, the most published of the Arena regulars. His comments on my second-round story floored me. I knew I was taking a risk with “Snapshots,” but I had to submit that story. It split the judges, and I narrowly won thanks to the audience vote.

“Snapshots” put me in the final round of the tournament, pairing me against David Webb. Dave and I have gotten to know each other over the last year thanks to The Writer’s Arena, the Human Echoes Podcast, and several insane Twitter conversations. A very weird experience finding myself matched against a friend.

There’s not a lot one can do to prepare for the Arena, so I just tried to keep myself as open as possible for anything. But no matter how open my mind was, there was no expecting the diabolical specificity of the final prompt.

I think I spent the first couple of days in a fugue. How does one write a story about butter? How does one make butter the star? “Snapshots” had been praised as a story about the prompt using the prompt itself as a narrative technique. But I figured that there was no way on earth I could write a “buttery” story. (More on this later...)

To use a culinary metaphor, I soon decided to write a story I categorized in my mind as “Butter Three Ways.” The idea of a horror story involving butter as a survival food in arctic conditions came first. Knowing of the importance of ghee (clarified butter) in Hindu rituals, my next thought was to have a fantasy section set in India. The third strain was to have been a science fiction story with a female lead, and perhaps cooking a buttery treat such as butter tarts or chocolate croissants. I even had the idea of giving Dussala two children, with the protagonists of the other two narrative strains being reincarnations of these children.

The more involved my research became, the more I realized that I had way too many balls in the air. (Or dishes on the stove, I suppose.) The science-fictional thread was the most nebulous in my mind, so I dropped it.

This set up a narrative strategy that, as David Webb so perceptively saw, is very yin and yang. There is a depiction of male versus female energies. The two storylines contrast a rationalistic view of the universe with a faith-based worldview. The Antarctic part of the tale might be considered a descent into Lovecraftian despair. (I had less The Thing in mind than Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.) I mean Dussala’s story to be a magic-realist depiction of the birth of hope. The title of the story is meant to evoke this dichotomy: the mystery story of what happened to the butter versus the invocation of Krishna, one of whose tradition titles is The Butter Thief.

While I wanted the connections between the two stories to have been subtle, I wanted them to be there—like the drop of black or white in the opposite color in the traditional yin-yang symbol. Sometimes, to paraphrase my wife, I’m too ass-oteric for my own good. Maybe if I had had another week, I would have been able to draw out the connections better.

Knowing myself as I do, I probably would have just procrastinated for that extra week.

Anyway, here are the points of connection between the two storylines as I see them: I deliberately chose names that began with D for both protagonists. I envision the world of Dussala’s story to be the direct result of the events that happened in Drake’s world—thus Dussala’s story is set in Drake’s future. The biggest point of connection was meant to be Drake’s dream. I meant for the dream to suggest how Dussala’s world came to be. The soldier that chases him is meant to be the same guard that Dussala kills.

I think that the fun I had writing the story does come through, but yeah. “TheButter Thief” is ass-oteric. When I read Dave’s story, I knew I was in trouble. I was completely drawn into the taught mystery that he wrote. I admire the aplomb with which he pulled it off. While I liked my story slightly better (an opinion I shared with only two other readers), I understand why twenty-one people voted for his over mine. I spent most of the week after the stories went live steeling myself to be gracious in defeat. If I had to lose, how awesome to lose to a friend.

Except my story edged out Dave’s in the opinions of the two judges. I won.

I’m still in shock over the verdict. I did not expect things to turn out that way at all. Thank you again, not only to the judges, Rich Alix and Thomas Mays, but also to Dave for being such a great competitor. A big thank you to everyone who read all of the stories throughout the tournament (all fourteen of them!), and especially to everyone who took the time to comment.

I especially want to single out Arena creators and regulars Albert Berg, DannyBrophy, Joseph Devon, and Tony Southcotte. I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to be part of this experiment celebrating the short story since almost the beginning. It’s been a crazy ride, and I’ve loved every moment—even on days when I’ve gotten my judgment in late.

Thank you all. Here’s to many more years celebrating creativity under pressure!

Oh, and the night I turned in my story, the following thought occurred to me. Without consciously intending it. I had in fact written my butter story in a buttery way. Butter is an emulsion, and one might consider Drake and Dussala’s stories to be similarly united without being compounded.


September 12, 2015

A Social Media Experiment

I've been blessed to encounter a lot of really cool people on the Internet. People who are different and crazy creative. People who think outside the box. People who actually think -- rarae aves in these dark latter days.

So I want to conduct an experiment. I'm going to Tweet a book I just finished reading with the hashtag #WhatToReadNext and see what sort of responses I get.

More on the results of my experiment soon...

July 02, 2015

"Mark of the Beast" Is Coming...

After many delays (including big changes in upper management), Chaosium is moving forward with their release of the werewolf anthology Mark of the Beast. Edited by Scott David Aniolowski, the anthology contains a host of great shifter horror stories including my cyberpunk horror tale "Arcadia."

Here's a peak at the cover:

Good stuff!! More details as they become available...

May 18, 2015

Behind the Scenes on "The Crimson Sands of Huo Xing"

I recently had the pleasure of having one of my short stories published by the great people at Evil Girlfriend Media. Jennifer Brozek is a wonderful, sympathetic editor, and I'm delighted to be a part of the kick-@$$ery being promoted at EGM.

My story "The Crimson Sands of Huo Xing" appears as part of their ongoing EGM shorts series. As I've mentioned before, I'm the sort of person who loves DVD extras and the like, so here are a few thoughts on my story.

First of all, the title. Huo Xing is the Chinese name for the planet Mars. My story is meant to be an homage of sorts to Edgar Rice Burroughs, though with some Cordwainer Smith and perhaps Chris Roberson thrown in. My one major difficulty with Roberson's otherwise excellent Celestial Empire series is that the series doesn't feel Chinese enough to me.

I hope I respond to that criticism of Roberson in my own story by drawing from the wuxia genre in "Crimson Sands," and especially the proto-wuxia novel Water Margins. Water Margins is also the inspiration for the opening quatrain. As happens in many early Chinese novels, the quatrain is meant to summarize the story we're about to read.

"The Crimson Sands of Huo Xing" is haiku fiction not only because of the role the quatrain plays but also in the use of suggestion. Names like Tai Shan Station and the cursed blade Yaomi Chi are meant to evoke a story world greater than the short text of the story. I'll leave it up to you to determine how well I succeeded.

Take the time to read "Crimson Sands" and let me know what you think. And support the great folks at EGM!!

April 16, 2015

The Power of the Right Word

Recently, a friend on Twitter paid me a high compliment. Here’s what Jon Jones wrote:
Few writers I know of have mastered the art of linguistic precision quite as deftly as @HaikuFictionDJU.

Of course I was extremely flattered by what Jon said. Choosing the right word for the right narrative effect is one of the fundamentals of haiku fiction. The more limited the scale of a story, the more you have to make every word matter. Flash fiction and especially drabbles focus one’s vocabulary intensely. I've had the good fortune to have some success in that field.

But Jon’s comment also caused me to reflect on why “linguistic precision” matters so much to me. How did I get to be this way? I realized that part of the reason stems from my surname.

It can be both a blessing and a curse to have such a unique surname as Uitvlugt. The name comes from two Dutch words meaning literally “out flight,” or more idiomatically, “subterfuge,” or even “excuse.” (“The dog ate my homework” is an uitvlugt.) The story my family tells is that the first person to use the surname was a deserter of the French Foreign Legion around the time of Napoleon. He “fled out” of the FFL to the Netherlands where he hid out under an assumed name. How’s that for a “subterfuge”?

My surname essentially means “pseudonym.” (More on Dutch surnames here...)

Jon helped me realize that I learned at a very early age that behind every word is a story. I’ve been interested etymologies for a long, long time. Jon helped me realize why. While the meanings of words change over time -- sometimes quite significantly -- words carry the weight of their meanings with them.

That’s true in an especially strong way with haiku. When Basho composes a haiku based on a certain season word, he’s very well aware of the centuries of history that lie behind that word in the history of Japanese poetry. Sometimes his poem depends directly on that history. Sometimes he subverts that history. The “hai” in his haiku depends on knowing the history of the words he uses. (More on the cultural significance of kigo in Basho's poetics here.)

This conscious use of words is definitely a feature of traditional haiku I try to carry over into what I call haiku fiction. Being more aware of the stories behind the words we use can add extra levels of meaning to the stories that we write. That’s what I try to do, sometimes on a subconscious level, but when I’m on my game, sometimes more deliberately. Weighty words, the right word at the right time, have more meaning.

Thank you, Jon Jones, for reminding me of that fact and for helping me realize why I do what I do!

April 02, 2015

The Writer's Arena, Redux.

I have the extreme pleasure of regularly serving at one of the judges at the weekly one-on-one writing contest at Shortly after the site was founded, I also competed. A few weeks ago I was asked to compete again, this time against the formidable Joseph Devon.

Since I’m the sort of person who loves DVD extras, so in that spirit, I thought I’d offer a couple of thoughts on how I wrote my story “Rites of Spring.”

Unlike the first time I competed in The Writer’s Arena, this time I had worked before in the subgenre of the challenge. I had the following 100 word story (drabble) win an online contest:

The Deal
  Leaves rustle.
   “Most unusual.” Northrop touches the knot. “The sap looks like…blood.”
   The bark-covered pustule oozes, coating Northrop’s fingers. He can’t pull them away.
   “Denis, a little help.”
   The sap burns. The knot sucks down his hand to the wrist.
   “Sorry, professor. Had to get a shovel.”
   As Northrop turns, Denis bashes his head in. It takes him the rest of the afternoon to dismember the body and bury it at the base of the tree. He wipes his brow and looks up to the topmost branches.
   “One more and you let my brother go, right?”
   Leaves rustle.

I also have a carnivorous plant story that I am trying to get published. For a millisecond, I contemplated turning in that story. But of course that would be contrary to the spirit of the Arena. I would write something new in the allotted time.

But what? I’m a definite fan of the Carnivorous Plants subgenre. I first fell in love with the trope -- not counting learning about carnivorous plants in nature -- by reading H. G. Wells’s delightful “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid.” In my thinking about what to write, I also had John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and Warren Fahey’s Fragment in the back of my mind. Also in my personal mix were things like the Tom Baker Doctor Who episode The Seeds of Doom and Alan Moore’s take on Swamp Thing.

As all this suggests, I had the problem of too many ideas! That’s when I hit upon the thought of using a series of quotations. I could incorporate several of these different ways of viewing carnivorous plants into a single story. The goal was to make the Sefer Etz Hayim a kind of botanical Necronomicon.

“Rites of Spring” is an example of haiku fiction in several ways. The title alludes to Stravinsky, and his musical treatment of pagan sacrifices. The quotes from the fictitious book are meant to do more than just set the tone; rather, they provide further information about the behind-the-scenes world of the story. My hope is that, by seeing events both from Stephen’s point of view and from Brit’s, the reader can triangulate a deeper understanding of the story.

Oh, and just for fun, I used the Medieval Alchemist Name Generator tweeted out by the Arena to come up with the name “Zacharias Glass.” I combined a couple of results to do so, but I did use the generator.

I alternated between writing the scenes with Brit and composing the passages from Stephen’s book until I had a complete draft. It took a while to wrestle the story into shape in my longhand draft. Then I typed up and printed out a copy of the story to work on the edits. A surprisingly fun ten days.

I hope that you enjoy the results!