Distraction

I spend a lot of time writing in coffee shops. Over the last couple of years most of the words I’ve committed have been written while seated in these sorts of places. Today is no different. I dropped A-bear off at preschool, and stopped off at my favorite local bean house.

The goal this morning was to write a short description of the various settings I want to include in the piece I’m outlining. I need eight to twelve when it’s all said and done. The novel involves a networked simulation and so the setting changes over the course of the story which means I can’t just say “simulation” and walk away. Each of these worlds needs to feel real for the story to work.

So I’m sitting here, banging away at the keyboard, trying like hell to imagine each one after the other. How do these worlds work? What feels real, what does not? It’s world building ad nauseum. I’m sitting here, periodically staring off into space because I need to imagine these settings when this couple sit down at the table next to me. He’s in his late 30’s, a little gray in his unkept hair, and a belly has sprouted under his chest. I think she must be a little older, she has long strawberry hair that she must curl every morning.

The guy is mansplaining everything and otherwise dominating their conversation. He’s doing so with authority while at the same time he constantly contradicts himself. “I’m a libertarian,” he says. In the next breath, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had government sponsored parenting classes like France?” He starts to riff on the VA and how he thinks it should be destroyed and forgotten. Veterans should know better before they join up to serve. It’s their own fault if they come back from broken places, broken. But then, “You know me, all I want to do is help people.” I’m floored when he trots out the Microsoft vs. Apple card like OS preference is still a thing. He looks over at my Mac and I can tell I’ve ordered Pepsi when he starts dropping “billg” into their conversation like he knows the Microsoft co-founder. This guy is a fraud, he knows it, but he can’t help himself.

The woman periodically chimes in, but says relatively little. I can tell that she’s practiced at holding her tongue. She does a lot of enthusiastic nodding on the rare occasion he says something that she agrees with. Her eyes get shuttered and she looks down at her hands, folded neatly on the table, when he says something so completely fallacious that my four year old wouldn’t have too much trouble picking it apart. From what little she gets to say, I gather she’s involved in mental health or therapy of some sort and my imagination races to keep up with her internal monologue. She’s taking mental notes, she’s keeping score. What the fuck could she be thinking about what this guy is spewing? I marvel at her patience.

Had I hair enough I’d want to pull it out. I cannot help but listen in on this train wreck of a conversation as it bounces down the cliff and into the river far below. It’s annoying, it’s wrong, and it’s just too fucking attractive. I’ve written down a measly five setting descriptions this morning, but my puppy sensitive nose is sniffing around story ideas at the table right next door.

We’re currently looking to buy a house (more on this later), and today it is plainly obvious to me that I need a distraction free space in order to increase my words per week. None of these novels are going to write themselves. Coffee shops work okay, but there is an element of chaos resident herein that keeps becoming a distraction. I’ve got another twenty minutes before school gets out and I should probably get back to my setting descriptions and plotting work. But I wanted to make a mental note of this moment time because I don’t want to lose sight of what I need in a place to live tomorrow when we go looking.

Slog for the Pay Off

I may have just discovered my least favorite part of writing professionally. Without a question it is outlining, specifically following the snowflake method. After getting neck deep into a number of stories, mostly novel length tails, where I get to climax and wonder “what the hell am I doing?” I’ve opted to take a new-to-me, and possibly more constructive approach to this tale. Following the rules, as it were.

I’ve completed the early steps to planning using the method. Right now I’m going scene by scene and creating an outline of this story. It feels very much like shaving my head with a cheese grater. Painful, unnecessarily painful. That said, the crux — the part of story telling I have the most difficulty with — is coming into focus. I can see that when I sit down to write this, if I persevere during this painful slog toward an outline, I’m going to have a much easier time of it. I’ve also probably saved myself an immense amount of time in re-writes and revisions.

The odd thing is that back when I was doing program management for major software concerns this was the part that I really enjoyed. Creating the battle plan was then much more interesting and enjoyable than the execution phase. So, while I take a break and look up from my outline, I’m left speculating on this personal change. Was planning major, integrated hardware and network platform solutions the most creative thing I could do when engineering and planning were my occupation? During execution there was very little for me to do beyond tracking forward progress and reporting that motion up the food chain. These were the BBB* times in my life back then.

My anticipation for the writing phase of this tale is growing. This is a good idea, a compelling story that will have popular appeal. And, perhaps more than that, I’m going to enjoy writing it. So maybe that’s the positive angle I need to take on this endeavor. The outline is increasing my desire to write the story. Get the outline done, get it done right, and I can and will write it.

* BBB: Bored Beyond Belief

Recognition

Here is my somewhat hackneyed awards post. Yep I wrote ‘em so I should probably toot my own horn. Especially since I just received a voting reminder for nominations from the very fine folks at Worldcon 2015. So, I would be exceptionally grateful for your Hugo, Nebula and/or other science fiction/fantasy awards nominations.

Wind Dancing the Cliffs of Olympus Mons

Wind Dancing the Cliffs of Olympus Mons

Best Novelette

The Big Red Buckle, FeetForBrains Publishing; Nicole L. Riviezzo, editor.

Best Short Story

Tokyo Yakuza #11: Mob Dance, Oriental Excess Co.; Nicholas Phillips, editor.

Of course, there’s more. Much more. But those are the big’uns that need some embiggening. I’ve been going over what I read last year and trying to develop my nomination list. I intend to post this some time very soon so hang tight.

How to Be a Writer

Neil Gaiman just responded to this guy’s question via his tumbler and it’s precious. You’re going to want to go read it as soon as you can click through. But save the reverse button because once you’ve read his response, you’re going to want to read what I wrote. Then you’re going to want to go to your tumbler or blog and write the same sorta thing. Because awesome!

 

Write your ideas down on a note pad. Carry that note pad with you everywhere, you never know when inspiration might strike you. Make sure you have a pen or pencil because writing with blood is actually pretty messy. Once you have ideas written you can develop those ideas into something that you’d like to read. Tell your stories to your friends and family. Bore them if you have to, but listen to what they have to say about your writing. Keep writing. Finish your stories even when it is difficult.

Also I’ve been told that there is an easier way. You may want to try this instead. Go to school, learn as much as you can about consciousness. Get your degree in neurology. While you’re at it spend your spare time advancing computational sciences. You must be on the bleeding edge of both of these sciences, but this is well and good because you’ll easily be employed.

Always remember that your job should be fun, you’ll need to appear passionate about it, and it’s likely that from time to time you’ll encounter project managers and middle management that will attempt, because of their short sightedness, to thwart you from your goals.

When you encounter these people, you’ll know them because they’ll use terms like “business objective” and “mid year review.” Send them email invitations to visit your office when no one is at work. Entice them and make sure it’s all but impossible for them to refuse. When they come, as they’re sure to want cookies or pie, hypnotize them when the least expect it and then command them to journey to your secret lair.  Your henchmen should be ready to quickly subdue them and harness them to your Superior Intelligence Engine.

Write and rewrite the artificial intelligence that inhabits the artificially animated corpses of your former workmates. Name this intelligence “HERBIE” because he reminds you of someone you once knew. Also the name is sort of cute and can probably become an acronym. You’ll want to spend as much time as you can making HERBIE perfect, because eventually you’re going to need the SIE to help you devise fool proof methods of keeping the cops off your trail.

When the police finally do catch up with you because HERBIE is young and has been isolated deep inside your secret lair for all his life don’t run. Running will only complicate matters and cops carry tasers and guns which really hurt.

When the grand jury indicts you and locks you up for good, know that the government will probably use your SIE for domestic surveillance. It is immensely valuable because it is, after all, the only working artificial intelligence ever created. Understand that this is why they keep you alive and happily ensconced in a six by eight room in their secret facility. Later, this may help you convince them to give you frozen peas instead of the canned kind. The canned kind are tasteless and bland, but the frozen kind are actually quite enjoyable with a little butter.

After the interrogations end, you’ll wake up in your cell one fine morning. Perhaps a prison guard will bring you a plate of frozen peas. Take this time to write down your ideas by scratching them into the walls with your fingernails. Add some characters. Develop a nice plot line, in fact, one you might like to read. Finish this writing project, you’ve got all the time in the world. Now you’re a writer.

Project Management

This is more of a belated review of the last year in writing than anything else. I’m opening with that sentence because I want to end this blog post before I begin. That said, this post is also going to contain a modicum of resolve.

Looking back on the last year I am compelled to the realization that I’ve been putting the cart before the horse. This despite being a 40-something adult with a load of project management experience and a well developed understanding of how to go about these things. This realization comes on the heals of devising the crux to a story I’ve spent a considerable amount of time developing. I took an interesting idea, drones fighting wildfire, and sort of shoehorned it into a science fiction drama without ever really knowing how I might end the damned thing. Oops!

Clearly there must be a better way to go about this business. Right now my writing process seems entirely too by-the-seat-of-his-pants. And this news is coming from the inside, where it’s likely to go unnoticed until it has become a raging problem.

How did it get so bad?

I need to answer this question before I can see my way to streamlined perfection. Last year was a roller coaster for our family. At the time it felt like I was dipping with the dives, with my hands in the air, and enjoying the corners as much as these things can be savored, but each and every time we had to pack up and move I had to start jumping through my own rear end. Every time there was a change of job I had to pry a wooden shoe from the finely tuned mechanics of my schedule. With each friend that passed I felt like I needed to take a break, let myself grieve a little, before I could move on. When I got off the 2014 roller coaster I realized how sick I felt. That thing was scary, precarious, and it’s something of a miracle I got to the end of it in one piece.

I’ve already identified how important routine is for my little guy. The Holiday season has been ample illustration of what happens when he doesn’t get his nap in the afternoon and what I should anticipate if his expectations are thrown too far out of whack. But what I’ve seemingly missed all this while is that, as a father and a writer, I need that same level of routine. Without it word counts dwindle, projects stall, and this whole writing thing feels more like an expensive hobby than a career decision.

Upside

Yes there is an upside. While 2014 was not my breakout year I learned a lot. I learned plenty about the business of genre writing. If I don’t say so myself, I did a pretty awesome job being a Dad. And, I wrote plenty considering the number of lifestyle changes and interruptions we experienced.

 

Word Count by Project 2014

Because A-bear demands it, yes my little guy has decreed today is “backwards day”, we’ll review in reverse order. I was able to achieve about 61% of my 250,000 word goal for the year. Yeah, 150k ain’t nothing to sneeze at, I know. I sold a short story to an anthology which you can buy individually or soon as part of a collection. I gracefully backed out of two articles that were going to cost me more to write than I’d make on their sale. And I received a pile of rejection letters which included examples of both the best and worst of their form.

From all this word-smithing I learned a couple of things. First, I need to keep very accurate account of the time I spend writing as well as the amounts I produce per project (a tip of the hat to Jim Hines for the idea). In fact, since July I have been keeping an annual spread sheet of the times, word counts and projects I’ve worked on. The 2014 version of this, even though it only covers a little less than half a year and is very rudimentary, has unquestionably helped me and improved my accountability.

Second, I’ve learned from this accounting that it doesn’t always take me a lot of time to write well. Per the spreadsheet I’ve kept since July, I can see that some of my most productive times weren’t marathon sessions sitting in front of my laptop. Rather, they were brief ten and fifteen minute blocks, usually crammed in on the heals of laundry folding or dish washing, where I had an idea in my head and wrote it down in three to 500 words.

Aral turned four in 2014. I’ve been effectively handling him for the better part of two plus years now, being the stay-at-home-parent and acting the part as much as I am able. Don’t get me wrong, Tess is still an excellent and involved parent, but for the bulk of the workweek I’m the guy A-bear relies on. So I’ll take a bow from the wings of his stage knowing that my work as director has quality.

My big guy Justin, turned 17. He’s been accepted to the college of his choice, has improved his grade point average considerably, and plays a mean blues riff on his guitars. Although I haven’t had much of a physical presence in his life for the last couple of years I still fell pride in his accomplishments and I simply love the time we spend together online.

As far as the business side of writing, conventions played perhaps the most important role in that education. I really loved my time at all the different venues I got to attend. Even more I enjoyed participation at some of those venues. Time on panels felt more like an exchange of information and ideas than a dictatorial lecture. My favorite experience by far was the shared reading session I had with Jim Hines at DetCon.

Add to this, the valuable connections that happened in and out of these convention spaces. Spending face time with my heroes, people like John ScalziJacqueline Carey, and Tobias Buckell lead me to a number of important insights. Even better, it periodically renewed my intention to write more, and write better. It also put me in contact with networks of people supporting these writers. From these people I received valuable feedback, helpful advice, and a couple of opportunities (including interviews, more appearances at conventions, and in the case of Tokyo Yakuza a tip to submit).

In each case, I walked away from the convention feeling overwhelming gratitude; both for the opportunity to hang out with others “in my tribe” as well as for the amazing support I get at home. I’d still be slaving for a soul crushing salary if it wasn’t for my amazing and super smart wife.

Resolutions

So what does this all mean for 2015? So there are the obvious tweaks I need to make to the system to keep writing and working well inside my home. Add to this there are longer term life-goals that I should probably identify so that I can work toward them. Some of these are specific to writing, others are more about supporting or enriching me so I can remain a productive and effective bullshit artist.

Short Term

These are goals that I need to address in the next six to twelve months. In no particular order:

  • Finish outstanding projects. Like Fire Weather, Winter City Above the Clouds and Counterfeit Horizon. I’ve got a lot of time and effort wrapped up in these. If I let them sit, I’ll be wasting all that. FW is nearly done, I’m writing the ending now in fact, and I may try to workshop this piece before I try to publish it. Counterfeit Horizon is big, needs lots of reworking, but has some really cool ideas, characters, and concepts in it. Of all the stories I’ve written this one needs to be done and I’d feel horrible shame if I shelved it for any reason.
  • Focus on routine. A-bear and I both need this, so each and every time it is challenged I need to ask myself how a change to it will effect both our interaction as well as my productivity. Nap time, for the time being, is a necessity. Time outside cannot be lost to errands. And above all the laundry must flow.
    He who controls the Laundry, controls the universe! – Baron Harkonnen
  • Economize, economize, economize! I will continue to sell off or give away things that no longer fit into our lifestyle. Minimization will help, but financial discipline must be the other critical consideration in this equation. Debt only limits us moving forward, we are transforming ourselves into cash-only family.
  • Build endurance and health for the long term. At this point I’m very inclined to consider my whole health. Last year I’ve injured myself several times, mostly from overtraining, and as a result I’ve ended up taking two steps back for every one I take forward. So I’m taking advice, restructuring my training plans, and learning much about holistic endurance training. I’m doing this because endurance is key to my success as well as to my happiness.
    • Build a great aerobic base. This essential physical and metabolic foundation helps accomplish several important tasks: it prevents injury and maintains a balanced physical body; it increases fat burning for improved stamina, weight loss, and sustained energy; and it improves overall health in the immune and hormonal systems, the intestines and liver, and throughout the body
    • Eat well. Specific foods influence the developing aerobic system, especially the foods consumed in the course of a typical day. Overall, diet can significantly influence your body’s physical, chemical, and mental state of fitness and health.
    • Reduce stress. Training and competition, combined with other lifestyle factors, can be stressful and adversely affect performance, cause injuries, and even lead to poor nutrition because they can disrupt the normal digestion and absorption of nutrients.
    • Improve brain function. The brain and entire nervous system control virtually all athletic activity, and a healthier brain produces abetter athlete. Improved brain function occurs from eating well, controlling stress, and through sensory stimulation, which includes proper training and optimal breathing.-Maffetone, Dr. Philip (2010-09-22). The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing

Long Term

These are long term goals, they may take years to reach, but getting them out there will help me obtain milestones in the correct direction.

  • Continue to develop the Diaspora storyline. Counterfeit is a sort of prequel to what I have already outlined. A technology roadmap for sending humanity out into deep space. I’ve had some new ideas about how I want to spread humanity lightyears beyond our solar system and they’re unique and truly “epic” in every sense of the word. My intent is to make this trilogy large enough in scale as to be humbling for the reader. Someday readers will compare me to KSR, Iain M. Banks and Clark and say, “Thyer? Yeah he makes me feel truly insignificant in the context of the universe.”
  • Endurance Athlete. I want to continue my quest to compete in extreme distance endurance sports. At this point I don’t know if this means that I want to be part of organized suffer-fests like the Grand to Grand or if I should focus in more in on independent long distance crossings. In any event I plan on growing my personal endurance.This summer I am still trying to put together an independent bulki hike along the John Wayne Trail and I have a recurring delusion in which I hike all 2600 miles of The Tour Divide.My intent is to reclaim the sensation I used to be saturated in when I was a backcountry guard on the Flat Tops Wilderness. Then again, in 2009, having come to some sort of compromise with my bum leg, when I started running trails a lot more often.

    “You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.” – Christopher McDougall

    Finally this goal, whatever it’s final outcome may require a COMPEX muscle stimulator, a new WAA Ultrabag 20l, and a competent and understanding endurance coach. As I discharge debt and fix my financial situation I’ll look for ways to invest in these things.

  • Collect Rejection Letters. I’ve come to realize that there are only authors. There are plenty of myths roaming around the internets about all the kinds of authors — traditional and independent, take your pick — but my observations lead me to the conclusion that publishing is in too much flux for these to have any lasting meaning. They are are the sort of ridiculous labels that get used to segregate people which doesn’t serve any of my purposes at all, ever.

    The best rejection letter of the 2014

    I want to make a living doing something I’m passionate about. That’s it, that is all there is about publishing that matters. All avenues to publication are open to me. As I write more I’m only increasing the possibility that someone will be engaged. Rejection letters don’t hurt me; they may help, especially when they’re well written and contain hints about the work under consideration. No longer am I a label dependent author.

  • Workshopping. Last summer, while sitting across a table from John Scalzi, I had the opportunity to talk to this man that I admire for what he has accomplished with his fiction about what motivates him. At least that’s what I wanted to know about. I’ve heard him say that he writes for his mortgage, but this doesn’t answer the question that’s been bugging me. Why writing? Of all the things a smart, accomplished guy could possible do, why would you willingly choose to enter into the profession of making shit up for a living?It’s a tough gig no matter how lucky you get.I’m not certain I really got an answer from him. John turned my own question around on me and then I was confronted with the surprising realization that I didn’t have a good answer. I know the answer is in part, “because I’d do this even if there weren’t any money involved.” In fact, I have written most of my life starting back when I was a kid. I wrote stories and drew pictures of those stories. But there is more to it than that. Writing is a discourse, an exchange if you will. I really enjoy the feedback I get from the audience that reads my stories. This is important to me as a writer.Since that conversation believe me when I say that I’ve thought on the topic. In September I ran into Ramez Naam at a reading in University Bookstore. At the time I was looking for workshops and writer’s groups and we discussed what role these played in his writing. Turns out pretty much none whatsoever. Mez has a select group of beta readers he relies on before he sends off a manuscript to his publisher.

    I’ve tried a bunch of different groups. Writing groups can be helpful, but my experience tells me that this is very rare. They can be clique-ish, some of them are set up to help only the organizer grow as a writer, and I’ve even run into groups that are more about playing games than writing or critiquing manuscripts. Mez warned me away from them, gently suggesting that I was indeed wasting my time.

    I heard Tobias Buckell talk about the sacrifices he made to go to school this summer on a panel at DetCon. My takeaway was that he feels four years of college actually delayed his writing more than anything. He found the most value, made the most improvement going to Clarion.

    In 2015 I’m not certain Clarion West is in the cards for me. Given the cost and the time commitment I need to answer the question, “can I do this if I’m given the opportunity?” I know I need exactly this sort of immersive experience to take my writing discipline to the next level, but this may have to go on the long range project lists for now.

 

Good News

Mago is not impressed.

Mago is not impressed.

Yeah, a short story I sold just dropped today. New Year’s Eve for all that it’s worth. Talk about good news, this is the best. Oriental Excess put out a call for authors back in September. I took up the challenge, pitched a story, and got a spot in the anthology. All that remained then was to write something so awesome that fans of cyberpunk and Japanophiles alike would dig it so much they’d want to butter their morning toast with it.

Yeah, the hard part. I slaved over this thing for the next two months. Writing and re-writing because I just couldn’t be happy with it. Tokyo Yakuza: Mob Dance has had about ten endings, all of them where underwhelming. None of them qualified to butter toast. Especially cyberpunk toast. Then in November, with some isolation and dedication, I had a breakthrough. This story is now whipped butter nicely warmed and ready for any variety of toasted bread. Even $9 toast, although we’re only charging 0.99 pennies for it.

Thanks Matt Amend

Thanks Matt Amend

The anthology, in hard back, is supposed to come out this spring, so wait if you must. But if you enjoy frenetic story telling doused with plenty of funky tech with a sprinkling of the fantastic from the Korean Peninsula you’re going to love-love Jihoo. It’s unique and new, and for the first time since I left these parts of Asia I feel like I got to use some of what I learned there. And just a brief reminder, it is the holiday season, your reviews are the only thing on my wish list.

Right now I’m plotting ways to get in on future editions of the anthology. Despite the challenge of writing in someone else’s world and needing to interweave plot threads across multiple authors and story lines I had a lot of fun with Mob Dance. I hope you enjoy it.