Almost There

This has been an endurance race. There is no other metaphor that even comes close to describing my first NaNoWrimo. I’ve spent the last twenty-four days brooding over this story, pushing myself up one intellectual hill and then down back the other side. And today I know that the finish line will be, if not in sight, near enough I’ll be able to imagine the path that remains. Today I’ll cross the 40,000 word mark and only have a fraction of the goal to figure out and write down.

This is a pretty exciting moment for me. And, much like a long endurance run, its very difficult to share how I feel about it with anyone else. Regardless, its a pretty special feeling. There is excitement and pride for certain and a certain amount of astonishment at what I’m capable of achieving (188 pages as of this morning). I know that there is a fair amount of work left to do, but I’m feeling pretty comfortable with banging out the words since I’ve long since wrestled the worst of the pain and trolls in the story. Running or writing, I really like this mosaic of sensations that I get right about here.

I’ve learned a number of lessons too. And like running, they seem to be mostly my lessons; you may or may not find value in the same rules of thumb that I’ve come to recognize have worth, but I’ll share a few of them just in case you might learn something from my experiences.

Trap Words

Everyday I get up. I move around the house and sometimes the town. Then, I get tired and I return to my house to sleep. It can be the easiest thing to be riding my bike to the store with Aral in the trailer on the back and realize I’ve just solved some plot problem. The words will be there, scrolling across my inner eye, teasing me because I know that by the time I get where I’m headed they will have fled. I’ll spend much of the day playing hide and seek with them.

But, I’ve also discovered that I can promote the situations that result in words and then set my day up so that there is no possible way they can get away. I set traps for them. Doing laundry? Well its a thoughtless exercise, think about the story and then when you have folded the last t-shirt rush to your computer and bang them out. You will nab three of four hundred in fifteen minutes.

The most productive day I’ve had this month (nearly 7,000 words over 24 hours) I rented a carpet cleaner and shampooed the rugs. The tiny reservoir had me walking back to the sink about every ten minutes or so and I nailed most of those words on my iPad waiting for the water to heat up. The situations you create for yourself are word traps.

Ask for Help

You may think what you are doing is pretty darn crazy. Somewhere between actively trying to win the lottery and searching for your own personal strike of lighting. And statistically you are correct. So few authors will ever become the kind of authors that make a living from what they write. Its hard work and there are very few rewards and no recognition in the mean time.

But here is the astonishing part, if you want it badly enough, I mean want to write badly enough, people around you will be impressed. They will lend a hand, but you may need to ask. I spent a week at my parents house this month letting them help me manage my little boy. I could have done it on my own, but their help allowed me time to resolve some particularly nasty plot issues I was having with Counterfeit Horizon. Their help allowed me the time I needed to sort out these problems to my own satisfaction.

Even better, discussions with my Dad and my wife Tess have given me some ideas for how to deal with some other nastiness. The results are excellent. Finally, you as a NaNo and also as an author have more than just writing tasks you need to focus on to complete your book. A friend of mine from my Army days, Jeffrey Witty, nailed this awesome cover for me. He is an incredibly skilled illustrator. Who was, much to my astonishment, interested enough in my story to pen and paint one of the hunter-seeker drones from the first chapter.

The point is, you have friends and family that are actually really interested in what you are doing. They may think you are a crack pot and a bit of a lunatic at times, BUT (and this is a bit “but”) they also want to see you succeed. If you need help ask for it. Even if you do not need help, ask for it. You will be surprised at what people will give you if you have the courage to ask.

Hang In There

Last Friday I lost one of my dearest friends Gigi. She was my loyal collie and constant companion for the last fourteen years. She helped me through some really rough spots in my life and on my journey to this time. Her passing was not easy and I’m still feeling her loss deeply.

But, and this is something I had to consciously decide on my own, I want to be a writer. I’m grieving for my friend, but I want to be a writer. So, yesterday and again this morning, I woke up and started doing this thing that is not grief. I’m not sure it will even help me deal with the loss I know I’ve got to cope with. Hanging in there to see your project completed is pretty important. Its **that** important.

As you write your novel NaNos things, both big and small, are bound to occur in your life. Some of them will be wonderful and some of them will be miserable. They are just as much a part of your life as the book that you want to write. Want to write it! When you feel that nagging sense of self doubt start running you down chose to hang in there. Beat it back and write on.

Midway

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Yesterday I hit 50% on my NaNo novel “Counterfeit Horizon”. This last week has been a challenge with some real difficulty and lower word counts that I should have allowed. I think there are a number of reasons for this, but ultimately, I’ve discovered a singular solution that takes care of them all.

The first week of NaNo went pretty darn well if I do say so myself. I had an outline and some of the most detailed character sketches I’ve ever made. The plot had a road map, which, when I gave it thought, gave me a great satellite view of the story landscape. Character A started the story there and Character B began just over the horizon. The trick, at that point in the story writing process seemed to be introducing these great people I had made up and then sending them along on their journey through the story.

I had worked quite a bit of that introduction out in my head seemingly. The second week rolled over and I struggled to connect the dots. The map I had lacked detail and so every time I sat down to pound out my words I struggled to peer into the future for each character. Honestly, I started to wish I had undertaken a fantasy novel, because writing Vera kiteboarding through the Caribbean or getting Frank out of the subway tunnel without killing him would have been much easier had I been able to wave my magic wand.

After struggling mightily all of yesterday (about 400 words in a pile of hours) it occurred to me that I was starting to hate one of my protagonists, and not in a good way. He is a mixed bag of character attributes, and unlike most protagonists, he starts from the bottom and works his way up. Throughout the story the means have to justify the ends for him, which means he needs to do bad things and then feel like he has been successful.

But then, after wasting time doing battle in the plains of Azeroth, the problem became plain to me. Writing Frank had become a chore. Writing these people was turning into a chore, and I needed a way to make it fun again. Instantly, a lot of the blocks fell into place. Frank became Bad MacGyver in my mind’s eye. You are going to love to read him because he creates these huge messes and then, despite his sociopathic tendencies maintains manages to cobble together a solution (at least for himself) out of paper towels, bubble gum, and duct tape. That is some fun shit to write.

Vera, she has a traveling problem. Every time the least little thing bothers her, she takes off. ANd with the amazing technology of the future at her finger tips she can leverage these toys to travel very, very far. But hey, guess what, running away from your problems seldom solves them.

Helena is a repressed stress junkie. She is smart and a proven innovator who has become increasingly ok operating on her own, but she feels compelled to solve everyone else’s problems. Little does she realize, but this leaves her exposed and we catch her when she starting to fall apart at the seams.

And then there is Aashif, who meticulously plans everything. He wants desperately to get ahead and the drum in his soul beats out a project management cadence. Unfortunately for him, he lacks the insight necessary to deal with contingency. His plans are doomed to fail and when they do, watch out. Aashif will become the savage beast.

I’ve got to figure out a way to have fun writing each one of these people. Its critical for me as the story teller. When I do, the words just sort of pour out of me (I did nearly 2k last night in about three hours).

Committing an Act of Fiction

Aral and I have spent the last couple of days ensconced at my parent’s ranch atop the Uncompahgre plateau here in Western Colorado. I’ve been sneaking in as many words as I can manage after tucking the little guy into bed, but fatigue and other duties have kept my word count pretty low.

My folks were on a short vacation to visit one of my brothers and his family. The two of them returned late yesterday evening and today they loaded up Aral and set out for adventures aplenty down in the valley. In the elapsed time I’ve already exceeded my word count for the last couple of days so a huge and heart felt thank you is in order.

Recently I found that the single most difficult challenge to my success as a writer has been a lack of time. However, committing acts of fiction seemingly does not require that I block out big chunks of uninterrupted time. Rather I seem to be most effective when I can drop what I’m doing as soon as the next bit of the story enters my head.

I may try and work out how to effectively make voice recordings on my phone so that I can extend the time between trips to the laptop by using a vocal short hand to jot down these little story building blocks that occur to me throughout the day. But, as making a small lunch just confirmed, little tasks away from the laptop can result in huge story gains if I can take the time to write them down when they happen.

Complications

Ugh! Woke up this morning with sinus pressure and a headache. Ate a little breakfast and then plunged headlong into laundry and dishes. Right now the little one and the wife are snuggled up on the couch watching Wall-E and I’m sipping the dregs out of this cup of Joe.

Yesterday I wrote the start of a chapter in Counterfeit Horizon entitled Florida. Vera Maahai is preparing to leave depart from a beach near Nassau in the Bahamas. She’s already kite boarded some 1500 kilometers and change following the islands that litter the eastern Gulf and she is preparing to slip through the security cordon that surrounds the United States.

Right now I’ve got the next segment of the story held in buffer, but with the sinus pressure in my head I’m having read issues. This blog post is more an attempt to reset the system before I start trying to commit the story to paper.

Feature Request

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So I’ve been writing about 1,000 words per day for the past couple of months.Much of my writing occurs in the morning at the local recreation center. I knock out the words on my iPad, with my headphones lodged deep in my middle ear so that the sweet sounds of The Specials or fIREHOSE become my auditory landscape.I’ve been using Google Drive since July because it allows me to write online and store my work in a way my editor can easily access it.

My tool box is highly mobile and smart. I’ve tried tools and then retired them because they don’t fit in or are not easy enough to use. In fact if you want me to drop your nifty app from the short list all you need to do is make it the slightest bit of a kludge or bork-job. Spotify got dropped after it started to misbehave. I’d start to write after queuing up my tunes and then mid sentence Spotify would quit or worse, log me out. Rdio doesn’t seem to have this problem. I queue my music and it plays and plays and plays. “My name is George Roughneck …”

Google docs aka drive has been a mixed bag for me. It’s a fundamental tool in my kit. It offers some pretty neat advantages over the competition. There is an iOS native app. It is easy to share out my work with people who help me improve its quality or are otherwise working to support my writing efforts. I don’t worry about device theft or infrastructure failure. I’m not going to lose a novel I’ve been banging away on for months.

Despite these advantages, I’m starting to think I might need to reevaluate using this tool. First, it lacks some basic features that I’ve become accustomed to since back in the eighties. Specifically, spell check! Seriously Google, why does spell check work when I use the browser and not in the iOS native app? Is this a fundamental feature of any word processing app you just forgot, or are you dicking around with features because you want Mac users to become Android users? In either instance, my judgement is that you are being lame. Pages does these basic things and I have email so I can share my work as necessary.

How about a little work to make the iOS app as fully featured as the chrome app (which I like)? I mean, having to wait hours until I get home to check how many words I’ve written, would be a pretty easy problem to solve if you just added this basic feature across all platforms your app lives on.

In the meantime, I’ve got think long and hard about how I want to proceed. Not having spellcheck makes my writing so much more difficult. It means I cannot edit anywhere but in my home office. It makes the process take more time, which means that Google is wasting my time.

Tense

I made a decision sometime ago to use the present tense in the novelette I’m currently writing. In part this was intended to be a writing exercise, but also because the nature of this story is such that I want the reader to be in the moment as the narrative unfolds.

The story is about an endurance race. I had written some seven thousand words before I realized that I needed a method to explain a lot of jargon that is specific to the sports. I used a team of sportscasters to bring this information to the reader and found, as I wrote the dialogue, that the narrative would be much more compelling in the present tense.

This realization, after writing so much, has cost me and continues to burn. There are artifacts, written in the past tense, littered throughout the story that I’m not very good at rooting out. I end up needing to read each sentence aloud, slowly and with intent, so that I can hear the artifacts.

The lesson I may be learning here is to make up my mind about tense and other structural issues before I start to write. It’s one more element of planning I should not overlook.

The System

Last night I attended another crafting session with the LittleSpec writers group. All in all, I’ve found these discussions productive. They require of me an investment of an evening a week which, at the moment anyway, I can afford and the discomfort of a nasty hour and a half drive from Boulder down to the south side of Denver in rush hour traffic. Predictably my least favorite part of the trip.

Next week, I’m excited to say, the group will be giving me some feed back on a working draft I’ve written currently titled “The Big Red Buckle“. I know that there is more editorial work I need to do as well as an impending re-title (I don’t actually mention the reward/title in the story … oops), but I’m very interested to get other people’s, specifically, people who are not soaring pilots, opinions on this work since it represents one of the first things I’ve completed since I started playing a writer. Once I’ve got this one tied up I plan on submitting it to a bunch of periodicals and it will be part of a collection I’ll probably self-publish.

So, last nights word-smithing discussion centered around the member’s various systems of working and producing. There are a lot of different ways to approach the craft that’s for sure and thus far I’ve been experimenting, trying to figure out the best mix of organizational finesse coupled with equal parts self discipline and brute force will to complete projects. Add all of that on top of the stay-at-home-Dad business I spend most of my time keeping up with and I suppose I’m still a professionally challenged individual.

The system that I’m developing seems to more or less work for me. I got a chance to think about it, out loud, last night for the first time and since I’ve been trying to put some better words into describing what I’m doing. This is more of a writing exercise for myself than anything else, but I’m posting it publicly because a) this is something I wonder about other writers I read and admire and b) what I do may be useful to other writers.

Deciding What to Write

Inspiration certainly plays a prominent role in this part of the system; you need to have something to write about before you can decide to write it. If a quarter of a year can be used as a yardstick, I have not had a problem being inspired. In fact, I seem to be coming up with new ideas I could write about all the time. Time is my limiting factor here, I’ve got on average two or maybe three hours a day to write about any one of these ideas. More often than not, I jot things down on scraps of paper or on my tablet when I think of them and then they get “shelved”.

Persistent or nagging ideas get developed. That voice we all carry around in the back of our heads nags me about ideas I think might work and it doesn’t let up even when I know I’ve got something else to do. Doing the dishes or driving my truck seems to be a good place to kick off the development of a story idea. Talking with Tess or other friends about my ideas usually adds more flesh to those bones. And eventually, I’ve got a corpse laying on the slab which needs life breathed into it.

Some of them get put on ice for a while (see Wiring Stories), but what I do is look at projects I’d like to finish and prioritize what I’m going to spend time on at this point.

Wiring Stories

In the past I’ve plunged head first into some stories I’ve written. No planning, no outline, no forethought I just sort of bang away at the keyboard until I run out of steam. Unfortunately, I usually run out of steam before I’ve even gotten close to completing these attempts. And some of them are really cool ideas too, so its a shame that I’ve lost these.

I’ve found that I need to pre-think what I write if I’m going to have any hope of finishing. For shorter stories (say 5,000 to 9,000 words) all I really need is a summary of what the idea is about. One maybe two sentences which I can refer to if I start to feel lost or unsure where to take it. Those medium sized projects, anything greater than 9,000 words but less than a chaptered novel, usually have at least one spreadsheet somewhere which I use to keep notes in about the setting, the characters, plot elements, you know the different parts of the story.

Never having written a novel length project yet, I’m currently opting to use development tools to help me as I tackle this beast. The first in a trilogy I have planned to work on later this year is a project, with a work breakdown structure, milestones, deadlines, multi-channel timelines, character descriptions and a mind map of key technologies and events. The amount of meta I’ve been using to wire up this project is actually a little daunting, I spent most of my writing time today adding detail to the timeline for the first book.

And then, and this is potentially one of the most important elements in the way I address projects, there is the project calendar. I’ve decided to give myself deadlines for just about everything. A writing project, regardless of the length, that I cannot fit into this calendar, which right now is running about six months into the future, gets put on ice. I may, if the planets align, tackle the iced ideas later, or I may not. Six months from now, when I’m looking for something to write developing one of these may seem like the thing to do or I may have different interests then.

The Grind

Regardless of where or how I publish I intend to publish the projects I’ve got in the pipeline. As I explained last night at the LittleSpec meeting, this has got to be part of the equation for me. I’ve effectively divorced from my previous career as a systems engineer and program manager and thus I find myself adrift in deep, deep waters. I can say that I’ve never been happier piloting this little boat of a life. No subjective annual performance reviews, no frustrating weekly “one-on-ones” (one of the most suggestive homoerotic terms ever used in the business community), and if there is kool-aid to drink at least its my own favorite flavor.

Right now I have goals, set out in increments. I shoot for a thousand words a day. I haven’t really figured out how to measure my progress doing editorial work or re-writes, its qualitative work that has to be done regardless and I am learning how to estimate the time it takes with more precision.

I am able to grind out at least a thousand words a day if I can sit down and work without distraction (yes, I’m talking to you loud lady who likes to talk on the phone in the lobby of the North Boulder Rec Center). On a good day, I’ve crammed three thousand into my two hour childcare window.

The Card Dilemma

I’ve just been chastised by my ever loving wife for a recent rating I gave to the sci-fi classic “Ender’s Game” on Goodreads.  But my reprimand had been delivered and the rage had subsided a tad we got to having an in-depth discussion which I believe needs some airing.

She maintains that, as a reader, one must divorce the work from the author. And sure enough there is a long list of conflicted writers out there who, blessed by whatever god they worshiped, we’re able to achieve some level of notoriety and renowned because of their talent at crafting a tail.  I cherry picked Robert A. Heinlein because he illustrates so very well, both in his personal life and in his writing, these flaws of character.

So we compared and contrasted for a while, but what I’ve come to realize as the thoughts simmer on the back burner of my brain pan is that there is a very fine line between what I’m willing to tolerate in the way of bad behavior from an artist and the quality of that person’s collected works.

Robert A. Heinlein and his Wackadoodle Tails of Earth

Heinlein’s works were a positive influence for me as a kid. Recently I’ve gone back and re-read some of it and what I’ve come to realize is that the guy was sexist in a way that is unrivaled in contemporary society. At the time he might have been considered a moderate amongst sexists, but its difficult for me, having no experience for those times let alone nostalgia for the rolls relegated to fifty percent of society, to judge amongst the degrees of misogyny.

But, and its important to point this out, despite the topics of his novels and stories, his views on women and their place in the world are very evident in his works. As an adult, hoping to leave the world a better place than the one I encountered for the sole sake of my two children, I find it difficult to recommend some of these works because they carry the baggage of if not hatred toward women, at least an unrepentant view which dismisses their worth as people.

But why would I tolerate Heinlein’s world view (or rate his stories better than Orson Scott Card’s) an better than anyone else’s wackadoodle world view? Well to start with Heinlein ended in 1988. There were a couple of posthumous publications, but even so, its arguable the the man has had a difficult time adapting to new cultural and social norms.

So its reasonable to say that temporal context and an ability to adapt are elements I consider when judging another artist’s work these days. We’re not talking about political correctness here folks, what is normal changes and this is an important part of how humanity deals with new challenges that the universe seems happy to toss our direction. At least, that is a key component of my soup sandwich of a personal philosophy, and I’m standing by it.

In other words, I’m willing to separate your work and your words if you dead and unable to change with the times. And here before us exists that a fine line.

Equality

Another point Heinlein and I may have crossed swords over is the idea that opportunities are not equally sprinkled over the surface of humanity. He was an individualist who believed, as a matter of course, that self-determination was the key if not only factor in achievement or success under any measure. If you want it, then all things being equal, all you need do is put in the effort.

Anyone else see the conflict here? Sexism is a form of prejudice that diminishes the ability of some compared to that of others. If everyone is in a race, than the women need to start further back from the line. And hey, if you’re happy with that roll in life than good on ya, but if you’re not then perhaps you should seek pharmacological assistance because that’s the only way you’re ever going to manage that endless pile of dirty laundry.

What I’m trying to say here is that its ok to be an individualist and make believe that you have ultimate powers of self-determination, but ultimately, without equality its a meaningless gesture more often than not reserved for those who have ample imaginations. For those who can remain locked up within those imaginations and segregated from the world around them.

Because the world around us, if we let it, will quickly remind us that things aren’t equitable or just. That people do shitty things to one another whether its in an office or across some border.

But since I was a kid I can recall thinking that things should be more fair. That if things were more equitable than all of us would have a better shot at being truly self-deterministic. And so, perhaps with an amount of demented naivety that I’ve been unable to shake, I persist in the ridiculous. I desire more equality.

Gay Marriage

Gay marriage, in my book, is just another part of society looking for the same sorts of things we all want. We want them because we’re humans. And as humans we want to love someone, and be loved. We want someone to make us dinner from time to time and maybe someone to walk with while the sun sets. I know I need someone to argue with about book ratings and that same someone to read what I write and tell me honestly how much crap it is.

Denying someone else this opportunity that I have have gained seems to me ludicrous. Worse, it is not fair. It is the same sort of bigotry that says because you’re a woman you’re allowed to be a nurse, teacher, typist or homemaker.

The nut-case DOMA crowd might insist that gay marriage will bring an end to traditional marriage and they would be completely correct. If, within their doctrine of traditional marriage there is some clause or homily which demands inequality. But I prefer to maintain my distance from those sorts of doctrines, in fact, as much distance as I can put between myself and anyone else’s ultimatums.

DOMA is wrong, its not equitable.

Orson Scott Card and Gay Marriage

My introduction to OSC’s bigotry happened back in 2008 when John Scalzi wrote about it on his blog Whatever.

Orson Scott Card brings the economy-sized jug of crazy sauce to the same-sex marriage discussion with this gem of a column. Whether he’s declaring that same-sex marriage marks the end of democracy in America, or hinting that married heterosexuals should overthrow the government because now gay people can marry, or just flat-out declaring that “biological imperatives trump laws” — I think I’ll call this the “forcible insemination get-out-of-jail-free card” hypothesis, because, hey, men got imperatives – this is OSC at his most foamy, and you really don’t want to miss it. As much as I admire OSC as a writer, and I really do, as a social thinker he’s far deep into my “oh, bless his heart” territory, and it seems unlikely he’ll be making a run for that border any time soon.

Incidentally, the link to the opinion piece in question no longer works. In fact, my light weight web searching yields little to nothing of the actual crazy sauce in question. Appears OSC has a clean up crew dusting the mantels and cleaning the blood off the floor of the internet in advance of the release of the blockbuster edition of “Ender’s Game“.

It turns out that OSC’s doctrinally motived views about same-sex-marriage and thus social equality are a writing exercise for the guy. He routinely writes for the Desert News and their faith segment The Mormon Times. Or he did write for them, seems a movie deal may reduce anyone’s deep seeded urge to dish out such gems as this.

I have opinions on everything, whether I have any information on the subject or not.

As I pointed out in my last column, having really cool ideas all the time is part of what I do for a living.

This could be dangerous, if I had a position of authority, where my decisions might affect the lives of other people.

But the oddest thing happens when I actually do have the authority to make decisions: The Lord blesses me with “stupor of thought” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:9). All those cool ideas dry up and I become keenly aware of my own hopeless ignorance.

Meanwhile, though, my spectacular talent for coming up with ideas about everything is a vast resource that usually goes to waste, because people in authority pay no attention to me whatsoever.

OSC laments his ability to affect those privileged with authority yet, at the same time, proclaims his “spectacular talent for coming up with ideas”. Those “cool ideas” that sell off bookshelves, get tucked into backpacks and then read by millions? Yeah, no influence whatsoever. None.

My problem with OSC is that OSC has a body of work. I can’t read one piece and think to myself this guy has a really interesting and compelling view of the world and then move on to the next only to be disenchanted completely of this notion. When I look at an author’s work I’m also looking at the author’s opinions — their philosophy, often in practice if out of context — regardless.

On this single topic I’m sure I have more than enough evidence to feel disgruntled with this author. And unlike Heinlein, OSC has every opportunity to reconsider not just the unpopularity of his viewpoint, but also the root cause of other people’s dissatisfaction with his opinions. Instead, he demands my tolerance of his intolerance. Meh.

Not to bring another author into this mess, but Terry Pratchett wrote an exchange that has stuck with me for ages between Granny Weatherwax and The Quite Reverend Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats in Carpe Jugulum. I think it might show where that two came from.

“A bit judgmental my grand mother.”
“Nothing wrong with that. Judging is human.”
“We prefer to leave it ultimately to Om,” said Oats. And out here in the dark that statement sounded lost and all alone.
“Being human means judging all the time” said the voice behind him. “This and that, good and bad, making choices everyday, that’s human.”
“And are you so sure you make the right decisions?”
“No but I do the best I can.”
“And hope for mercy, humm?”
A bony finger prodded him in the back. “Mercy is a fine thing, but judging comes first. Otherwise you don’t know what you’re being merciful about. Anyway I always heard you Omnians were keen on smiting and crushing.”
“Those were um, different days. We use crushing arguments now.”
“And long pointed debates, I suppose.”
“Well there are two sides to every question.”
“What do you do when one of ’em is wrong?” The reply came back like an arrow.
“I meant that we are enjoined to see things from the other person’s point of view,” said Oats patiently.
“You mean that from the point of view of a torturer, torture is alright?”
“Mistress Weatherwax you are a natural disputant.”
“No I ain’t”

This River Runs Deep

And when I read “Ender’s Game” with an eye for the critical I think there are a couple of criticism that can be made of the work independently of the author. Let’s set aside the movie and the hype machine that has been turned to prop up the story for a moment. I find it difficult to discuss the qualities of anything that has millions of dollars of other people’s creative efforts generating an augmentation haze around it. I mean, good grief, the movie poster has the following printed on it “This is not a game” and then under that “Ender’s Game” as if a kid in a cool looking motorcycle suit and helmet will magically distract us from this dissonance.

The book, as a narrative, lacks this sort of pretense. The medium lacks the flashing lights and special effects that turn most of our minds into grey matter puddles. And, because of this, it gives me an opportunity to really examine what might be going on here.

Yes, there are some neato ideas in here, but there is a theme I have difficulty believing. I can buy orbital space cities with zero gravity games. The hint of eugenics which might have been used to create Ender (and certainly was involved in the generation of Bean) I will even buy. But I’m going to have to draw the line with the sort of hero worship that OSC expects us to swallow when it comes to Ender’s prodigy. Ask yourself this question how much more can a wiz kid achieve than I?

Philosophically, it is my opinion that OSC was reading too much Nietzsche prior to penning “Ender’s Game”. Ender is Übermensch without a doubt, transcendent from humanity to save it. This is the character who only rolls the loaded D20 and he’s worse than Batman. Add to this that there is a strong current of predictive speculation within the story which only serves to underline what everyone knows, in or out of the story, is true about Ender. That he, and only he can save humanity for the Bugger’s next invasion.

If I were to remove the really “cool” idea of the overlord Ender from the story and set you to examine the other characters you’re sort of left despairing for the future of humanity.

The one good piece of news I get from all of this is that if OSC can make it in this business, despite the impediment of his constant intolerance and poor taste, I can probably make a go of it too. Better, he has plenty of opportunities left to change as a character, and evolve some compassion.

No End of Scenarios to End It

A common plot device in science fiction and fantasy is undoubtably the “world changing” scenario or event.  It could be anything from an invasion of magic wielding elf monkeys to one of the world elephants having a bum knee after an all night bender and needing to take two weeks off in order to rest up and feel better.  Go figure out the size of that Ibuprofen.  But more often than not, the world of our characters spins wildly out of control because of something pretty common.

I am, if not a “fan”, at least a careful observer of real life calamity.  I regularly seek out news and information about these sorts of events.  Tess describes these sorts of stories as “self flagellating”, meaning that I know from reading the headline, for instance, that I’m going to come away from this description of an earthquake or that one of anthropogenic climate change feeling worse than I did before consuming the information.

Yet, I continue to catalog these events as if they might go out of style and we’ll all pine nostalgically for the bad ol’ days when things just fell apart.  I’ve got most of the world’s volcano observatories in my news feed for instance and I check the weather above the arctic circle about as often as I check the forecast for Boulder.

So perhaps its no surprise that when I need something to alter the situation irrevocably in a story I have plenty of material to reach for, perhaps I have too much.  Stories, at least good ones in my opinion, need upset.  There has to be a challenge to overcome.  Some authors delve into the political and give us spy thrillers.  Others are able to phrase existential questions very well and we get tales of personal growth that inspire independent revolution.

Still others have used the likely, the WAIS sliding off into the Southern Ocean or Yellowstone blowing its top.  This is the barrel I reach for when I need something to shake up life for my characters.  Partly, because you’re supposed to write what you know and I’m familiar with what happens after a land slide blocks a river drainage.  But also because its easy.

There’s no slim pickings for options to end things, regardless of the scope of your story.  Want to end an individual with a natural disaster, give him cancer.  That’s sure to do him in.  Want to whack a whole continent, that mega-volcano is going to blow for sure.  Need a way to bring people together or rip them apart on a global basis?  Welcome to the new virulent, air-borne pathogen N2H7.

As I reach in this bag of tricks, however, I am concerned.  First, I wonder if I’m replicating someone else’s disaster.  I think about how I might make a probable disaster, like the WAIS melting for instance, different from other authors and story tellers.  The problem here is making it different enough.  This is difficult, in particular because the facts might get in the way.  If the WAIS melts or floats there are a number of things that will unavoidably happen.  It does not take much imagination to foresee sea level rise.  Complicating factors, such as disease outbreak the result of sea level rise, are where I tend to place my focus.  KSR may have used the WAIS, but he didn’t think of this did he?

Second, comes the issue of “self flagellation”.  There are stories out there, such as Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” or Larry Niven’s “Lucifer’s Hammer” that leave the reader feeling worse at the end of the story than they did at the beginning.  There is obviously a market for this, but I have to read what I write, quite a few times.  Things can just become hopelessly shitty quickly if you’re not careful.  Often I find myself creating an instance of a calamity, writing for a while, and then realizing that I need to back out.  Back way out, or risk being responsible for increased Prozac sales.

The difficulty here comes from the easy way as well.  Calamities can cause cascades of events, when things cascade we’ve got lots to write about.  But rarely does a calamity result in a cascade of good things.

Finally, there is the fact that the media today is chocked full of this kind of story.  Take for instance, this story about potential methane clathrate release in the Guardian I found today (“Seven facts you need to know about the Arctic methane Time Bomb“).  Its not difficult to spend time thinking about what might happen if there were to be a decade of 50 Gt release.  I may not be able to predict with any precision what would happen, but that world is one undoubtedly filled with chaos and pain.  Where is the opportunity in that world?  How can you inspire a character to greatness when there is probably no more than miserable survival?

It wears on you too, there is a certain amount of fatigue I know I’ll incur when I decide to read or learn about this sort of thing.  Periodically, I’ll need to take a break from it.  Sit down and dwell on my blessings for a while.

In the short I started last night the main character starts at the bottom and has nowhere but up to go.  I wanted to build a story around this sort of climb because I need it, the northern reaches of this planet are doing better than last year, but the melt is still significant.  The arctic sea ice minimum is on target to be just about as extreme as last year and that means who knows how much more energy absorbed in Arctic ocean.  Its not good news, and its real.

Ultrarunning and the Trail Running Media

I’m putting together a ruck for a trail run along the Front Range this evening.  In goes a little dried mango.  Two bottles of water: one of which I’ll probably drink, the other is there just in case.  A light sweater.  My phone.  And where are my truck keys?  Check my head lamp, are the batteries good?

Cascades in Smoke

I’m thinking about each of these things as I put them in my bag.  Thinking about them as if I were going to be running up and over a pass or beyond the horizon, even though I know that this is just a recreational run and most likely it wont exceed six or seven miles.  I’ll be in full view of the lights of down-town Denver the whole time.  I’ll probably start counting cars as they make their way along Highway 36.  This run will be about as far apart from an running an ultra as one can get.  But its still going to happen on a trail.

For me, there isn’t a lot that separates a “trail run” from an “ultra”.  Very little other than distance or time, take your pick.  If I had more time, I’d run more distance.  When I read about someone else’s epic journey, in a race or just along some trail the mile markers just serve as a reference points to anchor some segment of the story.

If there are pictures included I’d rather know what I’m looking at than the distance from the trail head or the start.  Is that a view of the mountain pass you’ll be running up today?  Yep, well that’s cool, I want to run it too.

Distance is a function of time regardless of event; if you’re racing an ultra, fast packing a trail, or just going out for a jog a story can happen.  Yes, there are people who can pack more distance in less time than I, and I say good for them.  Speed is important, but never as important as the story.  Distance can happen anywhere, but its not that impressive if its nothing much more than an odometer ticking away miles.  Don’t believe me, then ask yourself where are the epic ultra accounts from Kansas.

That’s why I run.  For the story.  Each footstep forward is another sentence in the story of that run.  Maybe it will never be told, but it unfolds nevertheless, inside my head as I make my way along any trail or path.  And just like any story, if the author places too much emphasis on one element over the others, the story itself will become unbalanced and much less compelling.

Running for a cause, along the PCT for the WTA

Do I think there is too much emphasis being placed on ultrarunning in the trail running media?  I don’t know, does it sell?  If by “ultrarunning” one means racing on trails over long distances from the sole perspective of the sport’s minority elite, well then my answer might be “yes”.  There are a few good story tellers in that bunch, but most of them are just good runners.

Trip reports, race reports, gear reviews from the hopelessly normal, even the perspective of mindful trail walkers — these are things I wouldn’t mind reading.  Share your story, share your joy in running.  You can write about that ultra race you just completed, but if it isn’t a good story than forgive me while if I glance over the first couple of lines and move onto something enjoyable.  Adding the word “ultra” to a piece of writing and expecting it to shine only works for cleaning detergents.