East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

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The Toilet Story, or beware the tales you tell

My friend Hell (no, not his real name but yes, they really call him like that) is a fine writer and an excellent editor, and he is the sort that harbours very few (if any) romantic illusions about this writing business. Stealing a page from Quentin Tarantino, he often talks about “The Toilet Story”.

If you remember the movie Reservoir Dogs, one of the characters is an undercover cop, and he tells how he worked on creating his character before he started his job. The character-creation process involved inventing a story – in his case about a scary ten minutes in a public toilet – as part of his cover.

Well, pretend you’re Don Rickles… and tell a joke, all right?
The things you gotta remember are the details. The details sell your story.
This particular story takes place in a men’s room.
You gotta know all the details–whether they got paper towels or a blower to dry your hands. You gotta know if the stalls ain’t got no doors or not. You gotta know if they got liquid soap or that pink, granulated shit… they used in high school.

My friend Hell says writers are like that – just like undercover cops, they all have a Toilet Story they tell when somebody asks them how they started, how they broke through, what’s their life like, where they get their ideas.
It’s not the truth, because those that ask the question do not want the truth – they don’t want the painful fingers and the frustration, the rejection slips and the fear, the overdue bills and the instant noodles.
They want romance – and so the writers, being adept at weaving lies for fun and profit, give them just that.
A bit of romance, a bit of mystique, maybe a self-deprecating joke because underdog stories are fun, as long as they are romantic.
Writers build their own legend, and they have their well-rehearsed scripts, that fit the readers’ expectations.
The Toilet Story.

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Too many interests

I was talking with a few friends about two job-related issues: to wit specialization and home-working.
Two things that do not have much in common but one thing – the marketplace hereabouts seems to have got them wrong, and a lot of the people I know (writers, translators, web designers, computer programmers, artists) are suffering for this.

Working from home is not considered “real work” here in my country – I live in a place where you get hired to do a translation, you get paid by the page, and the boss wants you therein his office, sitting at the desk, so that he can see you while you translate.
And yet, a lot of jobs could be done from home, with flexible hours, a lower environmental impact, better life quality for the worker, and more economically profitable for both the company and the employee.
But what if the guy works at night, or wearing a pyjama?

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And of course, there is the question of specialization – because true, companies post ads looking for people with a master’s degree in engineering, three world-languages and no less than two programming languages, and a solid experience. But if your CV does not show total dedication to a single job, topic, method or tool, you’ll receive the bored smile and “you’ve done a lot of things in your work history…”

And of course both trends converge in my current situation – as a writer and translator I work from home, and being a writer I find myself covering topics as different as lost civilizations, regional folklore, cooking, history of Central Asia , tarot reading in a single day’s work (except from the pauses I take to fix my PC, and the courses I follow). Oh, and roleplaying games.

Writers tend by the nature of what they do to be jack of all trades, and work weird schedules in strange hours.
This is absolute anathema for the current corporate mindset, and if you happen to deal with corporate people, you’ll be looked like a pariah.

Not only I do not do “real work”, but I wast my time on too many interests instead of focusing on a single topic.
But what can I say?
Specialization is for insects.

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The coldest days of the year

We are keeping warm and fighting with a number of technical issues hereabouts, as the coldest days of the year keep us indoors.
And not just us.

The perks of living in the country: the cold causes mice to seek refuge indoor, and as every year we had to deal with these small home invaders. This year though it’s been different – the beasties are more cunning (and avoid our baited traps) and are showing a penchant for eating through plastic bottles (thus flooding our sink with dish detergent) and more importantly, on cables.
We’ve been experiencing LAN problems, and half of the kitchen appliances are damaged.

And the crazy thing is, of course, that I am thinking this is a good premise for a short horror story – forget Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls and Kuttner’s The Graveyard Rats, here come the Short-Circuit Rats.
Or something.

Anyway, the struggle goes on.
I’ll let you know how it goes.


Plots, Nefarious or Otherwise

Sitting here wrapped in blankets, drinking hot tea and popping aspirins to try and get back on track after two days spent on the road and in the cold, I find that there is little I can do but plot future stories.

I sent a detailed pitch to my Italian publisher, but I’ve yet to hear back from them, and I have here two open calls that would be madness to miss – so I sit, and drink tea, and plot.
This is the phase in which I do not write, but rather I pile ideas upon ideas, and let them simmer.

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We are still having fun

I read the news today, oh, boy, just like John Lennon did. In my case, it was a social media post by someone I know. It was a masterful piece of brand management – three paragraphs with all the right keywords and all the bits and pieces to reinforce the author’s brand, the SEO perfectly balanced.
His pet topics, his by-words, even a subtle call-back to his first book.
The sort of thing you read in books by social media gurus about how to establish your presence and reinforce your brand.
It was, also, a piece about the recent death of a person, a public figure, a musician.

Me, I’m old fashioned, probably even Victorian in such things, but I found it in poor taste, and my respect for that person dropped a few more notches.

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Spare change and writing classes

Talking about my generation, like Roger Daltrey used to do, we never really got used to the copper spare change that came when we transitioned to the Euro system. It’s psychological, and cultural – the 1, 2 and 5 eurocent coins feel like ballast, feel like a waste of time counting.
Back in the days, soon after the advent of Euro, older people used to refuse to take the change, when shopping… “ah, seven cents, keep them!” and anyone paying a 1 euro candy bar with 20 five cent coins was looked at by everyone in the shop like he was some kind of beggar with a sweet tooth.

So what happens now is, when you take an old jacket out of the closet and brush it up, you find a selection of ones and twos and fives. Ditto when cleaning drawers, or when you happen to look in old china vases and other odd containers.

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Selling stories to foreign magazines

Today I was told yet again that I should write a handbook to explain to my Italian colleagues how to sell stories to foreign magazines and anthologies – especially English-language magazines in my case.

I had to explain that such a handbook would be pretty short – so short, in fact, that I can publish it here in its entirety…

  • write a story
  • mail it to a magazine
  • if they buy it, cash in the cheque
  • if they don’t buy it, send it to another magazine
  • in both cases, start writing another story as soon as you’ve mailed the first

And that’s it, really.

But a lot of people want to know “The Secret”.

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