Author: Will Ludwigsen (page 1 of 6)

All Trump’s Men

Apropos of nothing going on politically, I’ve been reading All The President’s Men again. It’s a book I’ve always liked, largely because it combines two things I love: writing and cracking mysteries. I wish I’d discovered investigative journalism earlier as a career choice, but then, that career would probably already be over by now.

Reading Woodward’s and Bernstein’s book now, I can’t help but wonder if a campaign of dirty political tricks culminating in a failed attempt to bug the Democratic National Committee would even register on our country’s moral radar anymore. As each chapter goes by and the reporters circle closer to Haldeman and Nixon, I’m stricken by how it wouldn’t even surprise us these days that the President knew about a huge fund of cash for spying on and discrediting opponents.

Here’s a horrifying truth I suspect but cannot prove: Nobody who doesn’t already hate Trump gives a shit about whether the Russians helped him win the election. It’s too esoteric an issue, something hard to prove with the finality of a fingerprint or DNA sample.

Worse, it doesn’t excite moral indignation like a blow job in the Oval Office, simple and emotional and easy to be sure about. I suspect that many people outside of the Twittersphere see Trump as the accidental beneficiary of electoral interference, and even if he was involved, they still see the issue as something like speeding — an arbitrary law we’d all break when The Man wasn’t looking.

We suck at parsing ethics in America. We’re awesome with morals — man, we’re drooling on our Puritan smocks about morals — but I worry we’re too much of a “get-it-while-the-gettin’s-good” culture to see collusion with a foreign power or lying as much worse than taking a pen home from the office. We’re terrifying rationalizers, and nothing short of egregious and obvious harm gets our attention anymore (or maybe ever).

I hope I’m wrong. I hope the narrative reaches a critical mass from the core of “it’s against the law” to “it’s an affront to everyone in the country.” I hope regular people start to get angry.

But I doubt they will unless we better connect intellectual indignation with the good old fashioned pitchforks-and-torches kind.

“Night Fever”: The Story of a Story

My story “Night Fever” is appearing in the May/June 2017 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, and along with the usual comments that it’s not science fiction (hello, alternate history!), I’m guessing I’ll get a few questions about where the fuck the idea of placing Charles Manson in the disco era came from.

(Want to read a sample?)

A couple of years ago, I posted a tweet that said something like, “If Charles Manson was active in the 70s instead of the 60s, it’d be Night Fever coming down fast instead of Helter Skelter.” My friend Robert Levy replied that he’d read a story about that, so I quickly deleted the tweet to keep the idea to myself.

Though the combination was natural for me — the Manson case and New York of the 70s — it took a long time to get around to writing it for several reasons:

  • I worried that it would be too silly or gimmicky.
  • I worried that I didn’t know/remember enough about the 70s in New York.
  • I had no idea how to tell it.

These are the issues that beset me with most stories, and the only way I’ve found to fix them is to sit down and tinker with a beginning until I find a voice to tell it in. I open a plain text editor and type out various sentences and paragraphs until I feel a twinge of recognition or excitement.

In the case of “Night Fever,” it was this sentence:

Sometimes I wonder what would be different if Charlie got out when he was supposed to. But then, he’d probably be as big an asshole in the 60s as he was in the 70s.

Then I hit upon the idea of writing the story in true crime fragments, quotations from articles and books and court transcripts. I’ve done this before, largely because I’m neurotically skeptical about third-person narratives. I always want to know who is telling the story and why, and the magical authorial voice out of nowhere just creeps me out. Plus I enjoy performing other voices (about half a dozen in “Night Fever,” including a gone-to-seed Truman Capote).

I wrote the story with my patented “tinkering” technique, which is hard to distinguish from fucking around:

  1. I sat down a lot of Saturday and Sunday mornings at Bagel Love.
  2. I browsed Facebook and Twitter longer than I should.
  3. I forced myself to open the “Night Fever” file.
  4. I read what I’d written and monkeyed around with a few fixes until deciding what needed to be written that day.
  5. I wrote it, usually for up to three hours but more often two or less.

The great thing about the story was that the structure was essentially dictated by the subject matter. I had to explain why Manson was released in the 70s instead of the 60s, I had to describe New York and the kind of people he’d recruit (focusing on one who’d be sufficiently self-aware like Linda Kasabian), and I had to introduce the prosecutor who would bring him down.

(Originally, the prosecutor was to be an alternate history Rudy Giuliani, but my editor was afraid we’d get sued.)

Then with the pieces in place, they had to commit a crime, get arrested, and go to trial. Most of that part was fun, finding echoes from the original murders in the 60s and play them out in the 70s. I made a playlist to get me in the mood for 1978 and researched what the clubs were like in the era. I absorbed a lot as a kid living there then, but my older sister was going to Shaun Cassidy concerts, not Studio 54.

I didn’t really have a point or purpose to the story as I wrote it except perhaps to refute the idea that any of the original Manson crimes were somehow inevitable results of the hedonistic 60s. Manson’s a chameleon, and I think he’d have done just fine in any era finding people better than him to fall for his shit.

(Modern day Manson followers, please don’t find and kill me!)

I’ll Be At ICFA 38 Starting Wednesday, March 22

Starting Wednesday the 22nd, I’ll be at the 38th International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts down at the Orlando Airport Marriott.

My reading on Thursday the 23rd is at the bracing hour of 8:30am, so if you like to wake up to weirdness as much as Aimee does, come on by!

I’ll also be lurking in panels and readings until Saturday evening.

What I Learned Running the 15K Gate River Run

I am not a thin man. I like soda and doughnuts too much.

But in 2015, I decided to start running (as exercise, not from the law or the Sandmen or anything) because it is the only workout I’ve found that is boring enough to listen to music but not TOO boring to lose my interest. It is, oddly, the only kind of exercise I’ve ever liked.

I run a few times a week (or more) on a treadmill, but I also participate in 5K runs (3.1 miles for those of us not caving in to Jimmy Carter’s world government measurement coup). They’re actually fun, and I enjoy running in places I wouldn’t normally go. I have a weird relationship to crowds, though, and I tend to enjoy observing than interacting with them. I do my own running time, thank you very much.

The Gate River Run is a 15K (9.3ish miles, fellow colonials) race through an odd cross-section of Jacksonville, and it’s a sort of gold-standard for runners around here. 14,000 people ran it this year with me, for varying definitions of “run” including long stretches of walking, which is just fine. For a person like me who sometimes staggers to the end of a 5K, it can be intimidating run a race that’s basically three of those in a row over two bridges.

This is the second bridge one mile from the finish. Most people just jump off the side to their deaths to avoid it, but not me.

So I did it anyway.

I prepared, sort of: I did my usual treadmill runs of around 5K with a few longer ones. I fully expected to  face some long moment of the soul around mile 8 where I’d hallucinate a dead family member or childhood hero telling me I had to keep going and I had everything I needed inside me all along, but it was just…fun.

Here’s what I learned/noticed:

  • There’s a certain point at which your body says, “Oh, fuck, for real this is what we’re doing?” and then shuts down your pain receptors. It hurt more to sit down after the race than to run it.
  • The course is essentially the world’s longest tailgate party. There are official water stations but then there are random people giving you food and drink from their front yards, everything from fresh strawberries to doughnuts to beer.
  • It was also a fascinating exhibit of Jacksonville class structure, with rich (or overextended) people drinking and offering mimosas on River Road in San Marco and considerably less flush (or showy) ones grilling chicken at 9:30 in the morning off Atlantic Boulevard.
  • Overall, the whole thing was this giant heartening show of community involvement and support.
  • There were Porta-Potty clusters all along the course and they always had lines. I never had to go because like our parents tell us before road trips, I offloaded my freight before hitting the pavement.

Here’s the big one:

There’s an amazing moment where you stop thinking about whether you can make it and simply focus on moving one foot in front of the other, when your energy shifts from doubt to action. Running makes it a nice pure thing (what are you going to do, quit at mile 7 and just camp in Arlington the rest of your life?) but the principle applies to things with more abstract results. Trust that moment will come.

Take heed, writers and artists and political activists: the demons of suck that swarm every worthwhile activity are scared away by not giving a shit about them.

Yes, technically it’s a participation trophy. Also, fuck you.

“Night Fever” Coming Down Fast!

I’ve just received word that my latest story “Night Fever” will appear in the May/June issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

What’s it about? I don’t want to give too much away, so let’s simply call it a tale of alternate crime and disco history and let you fill in the rest.

2016: A Retrospective

If it tells you anything about 2016, here are the two highlights:

  1. Receiving the galleys from Asimov’s for the story I wrote and sold this year, “Night Fever.” Yes, that’s right: THE story I wrote. One. Though it’s definitely one of my best.
  2. Being licked by a strange dog at Necronomicon.

That’s pretty much it. I also ran about 800 miles and participated in twelve organized races. Everything else was pretty much a shitshow.

Will’s Christmas Buying Guide 2016: Television!

I’m not sure you can exactly “buy” my picks for great television this year, but you can subscribe to their services or whatever.

I find I’m enjoying TV much more than movies these days. Who’s with me?

Stranger Things, Netflix

stThe big surprise was Stranger Things, though it shouldn’t have been. Kids in the 80s discovering terrible secrets in their little town after one of their own goes missing? Filmed with a Spielberg/King sensibility and 80s visual style? Sign me up!

It’s not a perfect show but a very good one, and I find these days I’m more interested in what stories can help me experience than what ideas they introduce. Stranger Things doesn’t deliver earth-shattering, game-changing revelations or advancements in the genre, but it expertly places you back in a specific time and place and — most importantly — feeling of being young in a world of dangerous possibility.

Like Mad Men, it’s a time machine that consistently placed me in a fugue state of imagination, and that’s not something most shows even bother to try.

Westworld, HBO

Big flagship cable dramas these days have to be ambitious and sprawling and full of mystery, and it’s this latter part that most fuck up. A “mystery” isn’t simply the audience asking, “What the fuck is that about?” or, worse, “What the fuck is going on?” or, worst, “Who the fuck are they going to kill off next?”; it’s a matter of meaning.westworld-poster

What do these answers mean?

Smart-ish writers raise questions. Dumb Hollywood execs and writers’ rooms contrive answers. Smarter writers make the answers into better questions.

Westworld does an extraordinary job of cultivating an atmosphere of mystery while also actually, you know, solving some. A question raised in one episode usually gets answered two episodes later, and that’s fine because each answer implies a bigger and more interesting question.

I find I’m less interested in the corporate intrigue and more interested in the rising consciousness of the “hosts,” but it never seems to overwhelm the story.

The risk for the show’s future is overcomplicating the mystery, especially if it experiments with time frames and which people are “real” or not — mystery for mystery’s sake. They’ve done an excellent job so far with imbuing the twists with meaning, and I hope that stays the norm.

The show is also beautifully shot and written, and almost every performer is extraordinary — Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, Jimmi Simpson. Jesus. They’re all good.

Aquarius, NBC

aqYou’d think Aquarius would be right up my alley, and you’d be right. We’ve got the 60s and Charles Manson and David Duchovny and crime, and the show scratches all those itches. I’m surprised by how much more I enjoy the non-Manson crimes in the show, but they’re excellent snapshots of the era.

A great crime story often addresses what about its time and place makes a certain action a crime. Aquarius does that well.

I find some of the liberties taken with the Manson story a little jarring (especially the casting of an actor who is WAY more polished than the real Manson), and I hate being the person with his arms folded who says, “That’s not where the bodies were found on Cielo Drive.” But I am.

Still, I enjoy the show immensely and the performances are excellent.

Will’s Christmas Buying Guide 2016: A Late Entry in Books!

Burnt Offerings, by Robert Marasco

About an hour after writing yesterday’s post about the best books I’ve read this year, I finished Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings via Audible in the car. It was an excellent book, well worth your time if you enjoy the slow simmer of human weakness in a crucible of supernatural threat.

This great cover is from the recent Valancourt re-released.

This great cover is from the recent Valancourt re-released.

A family in the 1970s (the glorious 1970s!) agrees to take care of a vast beautiful house in the country on Long Island (one of the ways you know it’s the 70s), and there’s a small catch: they have to take care of a reclusive elderly woman who never emerges from her bedroom. Of course, there are Reasons and of course there are Mysteries and in the end, the book doesn’t shrink from the consequences.

[The 70s are perfect for horror. I know because I was there: cynicism, mistrust, a sense of decay, graffiti on the subways and scowling people at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Everybody seemed to be asking, “Is God dead or did He just leave us for another woman?”]

Will’s Christmas Buying Guide 2016: Books!

Each year, I do a little retrospective of what I’ve enjoyed that year (even if it was produced earlier), and this year I’m doing it a little early in case you want to buy gifts for that special person in your life who is exactly like me.

Let’s start with the books!

The Dark Tower series, by Stephen King

gsThis year, I listened to the entire Dark Tower series on Audible and it was wonderfully strange and moving — a beautiful combination of medieval, post-apocalyptic, and Western sensibility with complex heroism and difficult consequences. I loved it as a story of a man learning how to reconcile his life’s obsession with the safety of the people with him on the journey — which, of course I did, given my personal history.

All seven books are odd and I’ll admit some parts are better than others. I especially enjoyed Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, but there are beautiful moments spread through every one.

As a writer, I’m fascinated by the obviously intuitive nature of these stories: it’s hard to believe King planned them very deeply, and they seem to be the result of him listening more than writing. That means that certain things get more attention than they should and others get less, and sometimes the endings seem a little ill-fitting. It doesn’t really bother me, though; it’s a roughly-hewn story like a canoe you’d chop with a hatchet from a fallen tree — somehow richly connected to reality. 

Various titles, by John D. MacDonald

I promise I’m not obsessed by Stephen King, BUT ol’ SK has mentioned more than once how much he admires John D. MacDonald’s work. If you wonder where King learned his trick of capturing the delicious gossipy detail that makes his characters seem real, it’s all in MacDonald’s stories.bc

My favorite so far is Murder in the Wind about people with deadly secrets who hole up in an abandoned house as a hurricane passes over. I also like the Travis McGee novels about the beach bum private fixer who does weird investigatory favors for people from time to time, but fair warning: they’ve got a mid-century sensibility.

I Am Providence, by Nick Mamatas

pYou know that old quotation “If you can’t say something good about someone, come sit right here by me?” This book is like sitting at the far corner of a Lovecraftian convention ballroom with someone who has the same entirely appropriate affection/disdain for it that you do. Yes, it’s a murder mystery that takes place at such a convention, but it’s also a purified sample of everything good (10%) and awful (90%) about the “community.”

It’s like Catch-22 but for Lovecraft fandom instead of the Army.

The Fisherman, by John Langanf

One of the things I found disappointing about Boy Scouts was that I never got a cool sublime experience of awe and horror in the woods. John takes care of that here with a man who goes into the wild for answers he doesn’t expect. It’s a beautifully lyrical book and it will make you wonder if you’re missing something by not going fishing. Then you’ll come back to your senses.

The Glittering World, by Robert Levy

gwThis book is a lot like Robert himself: cool, sophisticated, perceptive, funny, and just credulous enough to see the fey lurking on the edge of your summer retreat. I love the slow creeping intrusion of the strange here, and Robert never forgets how people are still people (troubled, petty, jealous, feebly and selfishly heroic) even in the presence of the wondrous.

What You Should Work On Next

I’m finding that the older I get, the harder it is to dive into a new creative project with the same enthusiasm.

“Enthusiasm,” if you don’t know, comes from a Latin root meaning “too dumb (willfully or not) to know how much shit is ahead,” and the sad thing about experience is that it gnaws away at enthusiasm like a heartworm. I miss the heady, ignorant days when I could say like an idiot, “Fuck yeah, the world needs a story about monsters who live in milk trucks!”

The world has made abundantly clear that it needs none of my shit, even the really good shit that I felt deeply.

I’m more okay with that than I thought I’d be, but it still means that it’s hard to choose what to work on next. Sometimes an idea grabs me and won’t leave until I do something with it, but more often, I have to commit to hacking away at something I choose.

So here’s the patented Will Ludwigsen Writing Priority Grid(tm).

What you do is list all of the things you could be working on in a column on the far left side. Then, in the other columns, you rate the story idea in several categories, like so:

priority-grid

Now, if you want to get fancy, you can weight the numbers as I have here. Maybe the saleability of a story is more important than, say, how interesting it is to you (though I rather hope not). In that case, the maximum score for interesting might be a three or a four instead of a five for saleability.

(You’ll notice that most of the numbers don’t go above three even in the heavier columns. Well, that’s depression for you. Also, I grayed saleability because that’s the one that seems hardest to gauge.)

But what if you add up the totals and you’re not happy with the result? Well, that tells you something, too: there’s a story you WANT to work on despite the cold numbers and you should chase after that.

You can add other columns depending on your priorities.Possibilities might be “How long has it been lurking in my mind?” or “How eager is my audience to read it?” or “How important is the editor expecting it?” I considered “How likely is it to fuck over Trump,” but I figured that one would be depressing, but hey, maybe you want to consider the social impact of your work.

This would be a good place to write something encouraging about the choice you’ve made, but all I’ve got is this:

You should probably weight that “fun” column pretty heavily because that’s the fall back when all else fails. If you change nothing but yourself with your work, that’s a lot more than most people do.

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