Distraction

I frequently give my wife a hard time about distraction. She will declare her next move and then do five other things before making that move. The fact is that she has ten times – or a hundred times – the practical focus that I have. Her distractions can be handled and dismissed in minutes; mine can take months or years. If you have stuck your head into this dusty blog, you’d be aware that we take dog rescue seriously around here. About 9 months ago, I was invited onto the Board of Old Dog Haven. From the fiction author perspective, or the fan of a fiction author perspective, this can be considered a distraction within a distraction, and so on, going on seven years now. A man named Bob has told me in no uncertain terms that once my writing became real, it became scary, and there is some truth in that. It’s equally true that once money becomes involved, many hurdles drop onto the field. Presumably, real publishers handle these sorts of things, but I haven’t gotten a real publisher, and I’m not even sure that I want one.

Renewal v. 2.0, Decay, Promise, Definition 2.0, Deadwing, Tales from the Edge, The Bus, Deep in the Dust, Web, all sitting here on my hard drive – collecting dust, months, and years while I chase the distractions.

The good news of distractions is that I take the lessons and the characters away from those experiences, but the bad news is that it’s all too easy to use those as a reason not to push the button and get my work out there.

I’m going to tell you the story of Old Dog Haven in vastly simplified form, and I’ll let you decide whether it’s a worthwhile distraction, but before I do, I’m going to say that it was a flat failure in terms of what I hoped to accomplish.

Old Dog Haven is a Western Washington dog rescue that Sharon and I have worked for 5 or 6 years. They take ownership of old dogs with chronic health problems, typically unadoptable dogs, and foster them out to a network of homes who care for them until they pass away. This allows dogs to live out their lives in security and love, rather than dying quickly in a cage in a shelter. I can tell you that the experience of fostering one of these dogs is incredibly rewarding. Watching a dog transform from a shelter wreck into a happy, healthy dog is amazing. It’s different from raising a puppy. Most of these dogs were once loved and a have a lifetime of habits that tell the story. Perhaps their person died or went to a nursing home. Perhaps they succumbed to dementia and forgot the dog was even there. Perhaps the family knew and didn’t care, or perhaps a family loved a dog for its entire life and then ran up against the hard costs of caring for an old dog. In any case, Old Dog Haven pays for the medical care and allows someone to retire these dogs in a loving home. Thanks to the expertise of the founder, they do that very well.

Coming from my Southern upbringing, dogs were a side note. We didn’t hunt with them, we didn’t train them; they simply were always around as pets, but not really part of the family. They only came into the house when the weather was brutally cold. Otherwise, they lived in the garage and roamed free, happy to join the foodgivers when we came outside. My perspective has shifted hard over the years. Some of that comes from my wife, who definitely wouldn’t have a dog that is not treated as part of the family. Some of it comes from the dogs themselves. I spend a lot of time among them, and I can’t help but conclude that they are sophisticated thinkers with as many modes of thought and as much depth of emotion as we have. Even the little ones, who I once thought were essentially squirrels. I stand corrected. They are fully dogs, and there’s a one-eyed Shih Tzu in our house that may be the smartest dog here. Given the first hand experience, I can rifle back through time and rethink my perspective on a great many animal advocates I once thought were completely nuts.

The fact is that we have been in direct relationship with dogs for a very long time. Depending on the reference, we could be talking anywhere from 5000 years to a time when we weren’t even homo sapiens and gray wolves had not emerged from the gene pool. Dogs have worked for us in various roles in exchange for our support. We bred them into those roles from the prototype gray wolf and sacrificed a great deal of their natural survivability in the process. They don’t know that, but we should. They spend their total focus and devotion on us, in ways that we define, and in forms we have defined for a very long time. In return, we owe them. Old Dog Haven is a good example of how to pay that debt at the hard end of the exchange, when the dogs need the most support, and perhaps more importantly, when those dogs need someone who is willing to make the hard call and deliver the coup de grace, because no dog wants to survive its own definition of usefulness. If we don’t give them a job, they pick their own cause and they serve it with utter dedication until they can no longer. When that moment arrives, they know, and they want to move on from this life. They don’t let anything stop them, and they don’t waste time resenting lost limbs, eyes, or senses. They simply work with what they have. It’s a lesson we should all learn.

So, Old Dog Haven is a miracle and a disaster. I joined the Board last November, to the tune of a founding couple announcing their intention to retire, and the Board President of 12 years stepping down. What?!  My own career has been a series of jumping into the the unknown and ramping up as quickly as possible, so that’s what I did. I studied Old Dog Haven, nonprofits in general, other dog rescues, and the legal requirements for such organizations. When I agreed to join the Board, I thought I would be able to apply my own particular expertise to help out in communications and technology. If you ramble over to olddoghaven.org right now, you’ll probably see what I mean. It didn’t take me long to see that those that those aspects were unsolvable without dealing with more fundamental aspects of the organization. I uncleverly assumed that everyone wanted those problems to be corrected, and started talking about it. Big mistake.

By March, I was both Board President and quickly developing as the Face of Evil ™. I was becoming a threat to everyone who wanted to keep doing things they way they had always been done. The kind word for those ways is sloppy. The hard word for the old ways is illegal, or at least legally non-compliant. They simply added up to a huge risk for the organization and the founders. Given that legal reality, who wouldn’t want to straighten it out? Turns out, virtually everyone. There was simply too much to hold onto personally for the prominent members of the organization to go down without a fight. Over the years, a benign neglect of management had allowed certain people to carve out little strongholds of power within the organization, and they held on tight by keeping normal information secret or deliberately shaping the information they did provide, or worse, by outright lying to create a false narrative. In the sympathy column, many of these people have their entire lives tied up in Old Dog Haven, and taking it away amounts to stealing someone’s spouse. On the other hand, a nonprofit is a public trust that should be capable of withstanding scrutiny from anyone, and Old Dog Haven is the polar opposite of that definition. I’m sure there are several regulatory agencies that would have a field day.

As a Board President with a supporting Board, I had the first and probably last opportunity to clean house on a deeply flawed organization that happens to do wonderful things. I could have simply exerted normal Board authority and fixed most of the problems. Unfortunately, the organization doesn’t believe in Board authority, and half of my Board flipped at the last moment and left me with no options. I gave them a graceful resignation, and they are busily maneuvering for position while they agree mainly on the need to drive a bus over my well-intentioned corpse. Whoever emerges as the new Board President will learn the same lessons I did. They will cycle through optimism and frustration that arrives at paralysis, and if they attempt to make a change, they will have the same target on their back that I did. The Old Dog Haven Board will continue as a symbolic checklist item, a nonfunctional rubber stamp for a sole dictator in charge of the future of an organization. Dictators can last a very long time, but their domains tend to be a lot less successful than they should be.

But that’s not the fun part. The fun part is that the faction that controls the organization is in the business of personal power at the expense of a clean organization. They are all willing and capable of stabbing each other in the back to curry favor with whomever they think will give them an advantage at any given moment. I’ve seen the tides shift numerous times in my short tenure, and I wonder how long it will take without the easy, unifying target of the Face of Evil ™ before they start turning on each other again. History says it won’t be long. In the meantime, I resist the temptation to hurry it along by throwing forwarded email grenades onto the battlefield.

I sound bitter, but mostly I’m sad. I don’t really care who runs the show as long as it continues, because the mission is important to me. In its current state, almost anything could cause the whole organization to implode. I had hoped to stabilize it, but I failed.

Another wasted distraction, filed under, “No good deed go unpunished.”

So, a great deal of time – measured very accurately by how little blogging has occurred – and effort wasted, but that time is freed up. What to do? I hope there are still a few of you willing to scream, “Publish!” at me.

 

The State of Jim

Those of you who are paying attention, and after all this time I expect that’s a low number, are probably wondering what the heck I am up to these days. I thought I might lay it out for you.

In my quasi-professional life, there is an axiom that has held true for over 25 years. If I’m working in technology, the client thinks there is a magic button that handles all the details, even if they are trying to sell 500 products. If I’m working in design, the client thinks there is magic button, that I have some software that makes all the decisions and pops out a nice, shiny result with no real effort on my part. If I’m working in industrial design, which I refer to as “engineering lite,” since I am not an engineer, although I play one on the internet, and I’m pretty good at faking it… Well, you guessed it, once again there is the perception that there is a magic button and that everything should be fast, cheap, and excellent.

Of course the old production rule is that you can have fast, cheap, or good. Pick two. I can tell you from vast experience that it’s almost impossible to get a client past cheap, and if you can, that’s a client you want to keep.

The interesting part is that client concerns are only part of my equation. The other part is my own narrative. Those of you who have been waiting for the rest of the Renewal, including my infinitely patient and likely disillusioned editor, probably think the client concerns come first, and they do in terms of daily survivability, but beyond that threshold, my narrative is king. A good question is why. Why does my narrative even matter? I mean, I’ve been soaking it all in for almost 51 years, and obvious patterns have emerged. We have issues, I would say. We know nothing, I would say, but I would also say that the minute we stop using the observations to drive our decisions into the future, we have lost what it means to be the leading species on the planet.

We could ask all kinds of questions about whether anything we say or think even matters. I cannot affect the political dialog, which I have come to refer to as “the face of madness.” I cannot groan at our President’s tweets without asking whether we would be in far worse shape under the power hungry, amoral alternative. I cannot live in Liberal mecca without keeping very quiet about the logical disconnects that drive the discussion. Someone would probably burn my house down. I cannot look at politics at all without asking the obvious questions about who our politicians actually work to serve, because it sure ain’t us.

The line between fact and opinion is so blurry that no one can realistically be expected to discern the difference. We are all too busy worrying about the vast detail of survival in the most complex system ever devised. Can you do your taxes on a postcard? Nope. Can you have a significant health issue without 20 calls to the insurance company? Probably not. Can you travel within the borders of our own country without being treated like a potential terrorist? No? Is it because we don’t actually have borders? Can you rent a car without a very specific type of plastic card in your wallet? Do your children have more schedule and legal requirements than you can track, much less actually fit into your daily routine? Well, guess what? The answer is, if you follow the herd, you probably can’t keep up. If you have managed to back up a bit and have actually examined the culture we have created, the answer is: possibly. I definitely know people who can spin a lot of plates, and those people are invariably good at knowing which plates need spinning at any given moment.

The end result is one of two things. Either you have no time to really examine the inputs to your belief system, or you check your facts with some level of critical thought intact. In option one, you choose a narrative and go with it. This is the easy way out. It works until it stops working and then you are you recovering from the shock and you go shopping for a new worldview. In option two, you live with the fact that no one’s narrative is satisfying. No one’s narrative answers the important questions. This, of course, leads directly into the pit of despair (Dilly, Dilly!). It invites endless cynicism and self examination, examination of the facts you can obtain, lots of hair splitting and qualifying of information, and frankly it’s hard work. Most of us are too busy dealing with the minutiae to engage in a rigorous debate with reality, and we choose option one. There’s no judgement in that, in my view. Here’s why…

When things get cloudy, I hit rewind. If I say something stupid, I rewind to some point in my life when I said something smarter. If I hit a professional wall, I rewind to some method or process that worked in the past and try to adapt it to the current problem. If someone does something I purely fail to understand, I rifle through the deck of old events and look for a pattern that may fit. The deck of old cards is our lifeline and our adaptive advantage. In tech terms, the value of those memories depends on how well we have tagged them with our own value system, but all of this process is only the first push of the rewind button. The second push involves history. Just like most of you, I sat through high school history half-listening to Mr. Hawkins (shout out to those who remember) drone on about things that I thought had zero value to my all important teenage life. I went on to college and spent more time watching my Western Civ professor (because she was attractive) than listening to the story of the victors she was spinning. My course of study was not history laden. I got the Cliff Notes version. Over time, I finally found the value of history in the practical, “doomed to repeat it” sense, and these many years later, I look back to realize that I am an ardent student of the subject. It comes in very handy when trying to make sense of the world we live in. In the broad strokes, history is a fabulous guide to human nature, which guides us to the depths of depravity and the heights of nobility before we even notice the difference. Push that old rewind button one more time and you can predate history altogether. This is also informative in very practical ways. For those of you who interpret belief to our creation in the knowable past, this whole thread breaks down quickly. I personally have no trouble blending my belief in the Creator with the evidence of deep history, but that’s an argument for another day. For me, it’s very useful to remove every advantage of civilization and to think of us as lonely tribes working hard to survive in a world that treats us no differently than it does any other species. It’s also interesting to note that there are still tribes that operate on that basis. I think it’s probably too much to expect that there are human populations that have had no contact with civilization today, but there are still people who have not been overrun by our modern systems. We can blithely sit back and judge primitive people, but you can’t really dismiss their own version of accomplishment at surviving without the internet, drive-through windows, or a global just-in-time supply chain. There are valuable lessons in the big rewind.

If you walk back through your own life, you will see the patterns. Good decisions, bad decisions, decisions that had a much bigger effect than you would have predicted when you made them. A narrative of your own life develops. You can chain together your own events in a way that has meaning. How you interpret that meaning is largely dependent on your values and beliefs. When you put it all together, you have a story with meaning. Think about it. Your life has meaning. I don’t care who you are or what you have done, if you apply a set of values over the events of your life, meaning emerges. I can sit back from my perspective and apply my own values to your life, and that has meaning too. As a believer in the inherent goodness of humanity, noting of course that goodness is a value judgment, I expect to find a meaning in your life that is worthwhile, and only rarely am I disappointed. Pretty cool, huh?

Where does that leave us? First off, we like to think we all operate from provable facts and logic, and that is patently false. We operate from belief. All of us, myself included, adopt beliefs for whatever reason, and bend the facts to fit that set of beliefs. I can prove this in the negative by saying that if we all operated purely from the facts available, we would all find ourselves in agreement. Two humans in total agreement is historically impossible, so we can safely say that we do not operate from facts and logic. We all have our beliefs, and we work very hard to twist the available facts to support our beliefs. Period. If you and I are sitting across the table at Thanksgiving and discussing world issues we will get along by belief, not fact. You hand pick facts to support your beliefs, and I can hand pick facts to support mine. If I’m feeling devious, I can support a view that I don’t actually believe. For clarity, an example… If you believe that prison serves as rehabilitation and I believe that prison is intended to be so painful that it will serve as a deterrent, then you and I will disagree on almost every point of what should be part of the daily existence of a prisoner. This example can be expanded to touch every point of life in today’s America. Policy, Culture, Procedure, Tax money, Expenditure priority, and so on…

But back to the state of me… I’m writing. So much writing… In fact, I’m busy thinking up ways to stuff more writing into my life. Let me be clear. Writing is a game of mind management. I suspect there are writers out there with much more practical models for what is worth writing. My motivation is mine. What makes a person sit down and think up an entire cast of characters, inject them into a plot designed to make a point that matters enough to the writer to keep going? I can think of a metric ton of motivations that work for me. Unfortunately, making money is not one of them, with apologies to my wife who has supported my bizarre worldview in superlative fashion. Here’s the thing. I care about the outcome. I really care.

What matters? Happiness, contentment, challenge, what comes next? Who really knows? One of my pet peeves is the overuse of the word “experience.” Watch any block of commercials and you will hear the word “experience” these days. It has become one of those amorphous words that means nothing unless it motivates you to spend money in a directed fashion. Traditionally, experience was a lesson, something that happened that taught you something you didn’t know. Usually it came with a painful cost. Nowadays, it’s a cozy place in a totally safe, all-inclusive resort that teaches you that for that for the right price, life becomes idyllic. The worst that can happen is that you miss the bus to the other resort. That’s a long way from the version of experience that teaches you when to plant your crops.

What matters is, who are we? Where are we going? How do we gain the most from the benefits, and perhaps more importantly, the limits of human nature? I believe (operating from a belief model here) that human nature is not something that we can decide to ignore. It is inherent to our existence – for good or bad. I happen to encapsulate both. I am good and bad. If you happen to tip the scales into my version of bad, I will happily write you off. If you tip into my version of good, I will work my butt off to support you. It’s not for me to make the final analysis; I’m sure that at any given moment, there are people who judge me either way. My wife is much better. She begins with the assumption that you are good by her definitions and she will try to help you. I used to be that way, but I became more cynical and realized that I needed a harder filter. People are fully capable of the sublime, and people of are fully capable of the suck, usually in the same person.

One piece of human nature is sex. We cannot ignore it. It happens before thought even intervenes. It makes perfect sense. If sex were not inherent to our existence, we would not exist. As far as we know, sex is still the only way we make new humans. That serves as no excuse to the dirtbags who happily blend money and power into the sex equation in a forceful way. Those losers are bubbling up like the oil in the Beverly Hillbillies opening theme. Look it up, young’uns! In evolutionary terms, if you cannot attract sex on some merit that involves a woman choosing you, then you do not deserve to procreate. Speaking as a man here, which makes me the lowest form of observer in today’s model… A woman can choose you to fulfill any number of roles: friend, helper, supportive listener, protector, lover, person who agrees with her, her child’s father, provider, some subliminal chemical cue, whatever works for her; you do not have the right to subvert that choice through power. Men, be worthy. Women, pick your terms, but don’t be surprised if you fail to gain respect for your choices. It’s your right to say no, and men should absolutely respect that (even the dirtbags who don’t recognize the obvious fact), but it’s your burden to live with your ‘yes’.

Another aspect of human nature we can’t ignore is the big WHY. This is a question that exists on a million levels. If you don’t believe in a higher power of any kind, then it’s an existential dilemma. Literally every choice you make is universal. You can rail and shout at the sky all you want. The problem is that the choices are sitting atop the proverbial house of cards. I can sit in a restaurant and listen to people having conversations that sound like critical decisions in life. The tone is that of people trying to make life-scale decisions; the subject is which app they use on their phone, or what someone said on Facebook. Again, I’m not judging. It’s entirely possible that someone said something on social media that changes your life, but if that’s the case, perhaps you should just call that person and have a conversation. Better yet, meet that person and have a face to face conversation so that you can take advantage of all the non-verbal cues that come with actual human interaction. It’s all too easy to forget that we live in a world that depends on a lot of technological systems working correctly to derive meaning in our lives. If the person in question makes that impossible, then it is credible that a higher order of values come into play, and that person is no longer worth your time, attention, and concern. If you do believe in a higher power, then you can offload some of the outcomes to a greater cause. Is that cause intended to work out in your favor? It’s like the two high school teams who pray before the game. They are both praying for victory in some form, but only one will win on the scoreboard. What is the preferred outcome for your higher power, and does it supersede mine? I like to run with this concept. I’m willing to listen to your beliefs as long as they don’t directly involve harming people with other beliefs. The beauty of beliefs, and the risk, is that we can’t prove them in this lifetime. If we believe in an infinite creator, yet we live finite lives, then it’s fairly logical to assume that we don’t have all the facts. We live in a box of existence that is intended to be measured within the dimensions of that box. The creator of the box makes the rules. We don’t know the rules, and we can’t say that we are winning or losing until we escape the box. In other words, everything we decide is important is a box within a box within a box, ad infinitum.

Do we then fall to an innate sense of rightness? Is that a real thing? God, I hope so. Otherwise, we are lost. Without that sense of right and wrong, it’s all too easy to imagine that we don’t deserve to survive as a species. Using the big rewind button, we know that entire species have disappeared from the Earth. They are disappearing as we sit here, looking at our high definition screens. What if 65.1 million years ago, there were dinosaurs that had decoded morality completely. They had it figured out, and they were destroyed by a wayward asteroid. Does that mean that we are not intended to understand the big picture, or does it mean that those dinosaurs had it wrong? If we have it wrong, does the logic, the hard rules of the cosmos, mean that our view gets replaced by that of dogs? I mean, dogs are far more reliable than we are. If you were a god, choosing between our moral flexibility and the stalwart dedication of a dog, would you choose the random nature of human morality over a being that expresses dedication to its master in unfailing service? The life of a god would be far better served by dog values than human ones. On the other hand, perhaps the hierarchy was intended from the beginning. We serve a higher purpose, and dogs serve us. If that were the case, perhaps we are intended to learn from dogs even as we master them. It’s entirely possible that dogs serve as training for a low order of control over our existence. Which means that we should be paying attention… Just in case.

Control, as in that of a master over a dog, god over a people, or parent over a child, is a delicate balance. In any of those cases, pushing too hard results in rebellion. Those of you with teenage children are nodding your heads vigorously. Pushing your dog too hard in training doesn’t result in rebellion, it results in confusion. That dog is entirely willing to follow your lead, it is simply unsure of what you want. What if you believed in a god named Dewey, and Dewey’s commandments included a clause that required you to do a literal song and dance every time you crossed a threshold? This performance requires 3 minutes of your time, literally every time you moved from one room to another. The rebellion against this commandment would be that we all live in giant rooms to avoid the threshold ritual. We would forsake bathroom privacy to save those 3 minutes, four times per day. Our value system would be literally warped around Dewey’s rules. This is an entirely fictional and exaggerated example of how strong our belief systems are against practical considerations. If you are a parent, you already know these things. I have been a step parent but not a parent of my own offspring (why would I propagate heart disease and diabetes,  not to mention the lessons of my father?) , which means that my entire reference comes from being the offspring of typically flawed human beings. Grain of salt factor … As a side note, being married to a very intelligent and analytical woman means that I qualify every bit of data that I share. I may be guessing, fairly confident, or totally certain. I’ll qualify it in some way. As I tell my wife, if I don’t qualify it, you should treat it as the truth. As the ultimate hedge, my truth is probably not your truth. Luckily, I know my wife well enough to define the truth in her terms. She’s good that way.

I have wandered far afield. Let’s just call it an anchor in the “face of madness” of current events. What you really need to know is that I am writing in several venues. One is the Renewal universe, which is built on a lot of what I have shared in this piece. The biggest struggle with Renewal is that the reference line keeps shifting. 2017 is not 2011. As I wrestle with the story, I keep having to shift my focus into broader realms to accomplish what I intended from the beginning. The current truth is not the broader truth. Two is the Definition universe. It accomplishes a few things in my motivational structure. One is that I have a basic optimism for the future. Two is that historically and currently, we know nothing. This could be a very pessimistic view, but I see it as an optimistic view. If we limit our future based on what we know now, then it is very limited indeed. If we assume that we know nothing, then we have an unlimited future. I prefer that we will continue to re-frame our understanding until we open the doors to the universe.

Keep that in mind the next time you encounter the idiot who doesn’t know how to work a four-way stop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Years On

Greetings, all who are still keeping up with my blog! I thought it might be time for a little update about the main event. That is, my fiction, which could just as easily be interpreted as a very minor event, but even after five years, it’s a big deal to me.

One could easily say that I’ve gone completely off the rails for the past five years and make a good case of it. Sometimes I choose priorities that others wouldn’t understand. That’s not say I’m ‘right’ by any objective measure… In fact, my own ‘objective’ measurement systems yell at me constantly.

It all started with a friend, a guy I considered to be a very good friend. He wanted to do a UAV business, and I wanted to help him as much as he has helped me over the years. In typical fashion for me, I jumped in with both feet, learned enough to see the future and realized I was in a race. I worked at it like it was a race, made a lot of progress, but lost the race when my friend not only gave up on the race, he gave up on me. I’m still not exactly sure what happened, but I know I lost a good friend. At that point, the situation had changed and I needed that hard won expertise to generate some cash flow here at home, so I took another job with a UAV company. Like the first, it was a flaky, shoestring operation, but I still managed to fly an amazingly efficient UAV while fighting a boss who had a tenuous grasp of reality, at best. There came a time when it was clear he had no real intention of fulfilling orders and I left, with my wife’s mandate to quote, “Write my ass off.”

Along came another cash flow opportunity and I had to take it. Even if I get as lucky again as I did with Renewal, it still takes months before money comes in. I’ve been building a system in earnest that my boss can handle, knowing full well that eventually I have to step away for a variety of reasons, and also knowing that I can’t step away until I can publish again. For the past 5 or 6 months, I have been hard at work on picking up where I left off.

There was a time when I could have simply started writing, but after all this time, I had forgotten far too much. I had to start with Renewal again. I had to incorporate my editor’s input, Connie Rinehold for you authors out there, and I had to correct a myriad of my own mistakes. I had to add a few things I thought were missing and I had to pile it all together into novel form. For the record, novels are harder than a series which adds up to a novel. Most importantly, I had to re-immerse myself into the Renewal universe and the motivations that took me there in the first place. I had to adjust a few of those perceptions and assumptions based on the last five years. Some things have changed radically for me, and some have not.

Then, by about September, I jumped back into book 2, which I’ve been calling Decay, but have changed to a new title a don’t want to reveal as yet. Connie, who I can assure you has flogged me mercilessly to write, and I dig that about her, asks me to send her chapters, but I don’t think in chapters. I think in story arcs. I apparently bleed continuity. By mid-October, I had rewritten most of Book 2, and started on Book 3, which was my darling of the Renewal set. It resolves the future and my love of resolution, which I’ll confess right now is why I will probably never be good at short stories. Right now, I’m dealing with the illogical nature of a couple of deux ex machina in the tail end of Book 3. I hate ’em, you hate ’em. Let’s get rid of them.

And let’s talk about motivation… I am motivated by people, and how they deal with events, and how they collect into social patterns which create the reality of our lives. Needless to say, this election cycle has been fascinating. The whole point of apocalypse for me is to explore how people react when the entire rug is yanked out from under them. Can they adapt? Can they flex into a new set of rules fast enough to survive? What happens if the food chain breaks? What happens if text messaging disappears, email, GPS, Google? What happens if we are reduced to FM radio?From the past year, how did the entire left get so blindsided by an election, and what cultural patterns left them so unable to cope with it? I went to high school with a young adult author whose entire Facebook feed now looks like the most tortured, grasping logic of how to change the reality of a Trump presidency. What happens if the pendulum swing results in the fascist regime the left thinks Trump represents? Stuff like that… Fascinating.

The point is simple. I’m writing, and working hard to get free of other commitments so that I can spend more time writing. The Renewal Universe is just one of my many attempts at fiction, but the only way past is through, and you will see the results as soon as I can manage it.

 

 

 

Brains

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. I could talk about wrestling matches with our favorite ebook distributor, or I could talk about the temperature outside, which leads directly to the temperature in here, and onto my chilly typing digits. (Although we can only call it typing in the gentlest sense of the word) Instead, I’ll talk about a recent heart procedure, not for its own sake – I’m fine, and this is not my first whirl around the cath lab -but for its tendency to force large reevaluations into my life scheme, which leads us finally to brains.

I don’t have enough.

Or too much. Or both at the same time.

My whole life, I’ve been able to carry around all the stuff in my head – in my head. This year, for the first time, my mental filing cabinet has been crammed full, and that is a surprisingly hard thing to realize. I mean, a guy like me is used to coming in last in a footrace, or a bike ride, or a posthole digging contest… Slow and steady wins the race. But my brain, it usually bounces along just fine. Right now, I’m mind-holding about six novels, twenty or so partial novels, a sarcastic self help book (blind leading the blind there), some story ideas, an irritating pile of news, six dogs, three cats, a half dozen things that need to be fixed, ten aircraft designs in various stages of completion, another dozen graphics, Windows patch Tuesday, a Linux box that won’t update, my best friend’s newly pulled tooth, my editor’s health, nylon M3 spacers, a lovely wife, and… Well, you get the idea.

Because of my annoying tendency to remember entirely too much, I’ve discovered that I have no system for offloading some of that mental junk and then retrieving it later. I’ve always been aware of this lack, and I’ve tried all the obvious solutions at one time or another, but only with a little life-scale crisis to push me have I really stopped and examined the problem.

Lists. Now here’s an eminently practical solution. My wife makes lists like a champ. I distinctly remember a certain wormy small town mayor showing me his proudly developed list system that fit entirely inside his wallet, complete with the tubular ink core of a ballpoint pen. There is no reason why a few good lists wouldn’t work, but for me, they don’t. As a subset, there’s the TODO list, which again makes perfect sense. I bet the majority of you can rock a TODO list like nobody’s business. The TODO, as I vaguely understand it, takes the master list, sorts it based on some kind of priority system, and magically yields a systematic process of getting through the day. Magnificent! My closest approach is a thing an old friend calls an “Intenda.” I intend to do certain things every day, but the order is subject to conditions, mood, and the phase of the moon.

As a writer of sorts, I should be able to pick up a writing instrument and jot down something worth reading again later. I own several nice blank journals that are just begging to be filled with words. Sometimes I make it to page three before the horror show of my left-handed penmanship scares me away. Not only do I want to avoid desecrating such nicely bound paper, I do not want to look back inside, lest my noxious scrawls split me into multiple personalities or somesuch.

Calendars. I hear they work well. Again, my wife is a paragon example of how to effectively use them to manage her time. For me, calendars are a good excuse to hang cool pictures on the wall. Incidentally, the only real struggles in my own writing involve keeping the timeline straight. Coincidence? I think not.

And the “list” goes on… Apparently, good record keeping systems are learned behavior, and I’ve managed to avoid learning any of them. So, here I go, stepping backwards, looking at the big picture, and thinking about how I think.

What has worked in the past? Let’s see. I took notes in college, just like everyone else. I took them, but I never used them. Probably that handwriting thing again. I found that I could just remember the professor writing on the board when test time came. No, it’s not photographic. Maybe it’s cinematic. Later, I ran a business, and I made lists. Yep. But then I remembered everything on them and, once again, never looked at those lists. I’m a lousy lister. The only thing I hate more than my own lists is tax forms, but’s that another blog post. I had one of those day planner thing-a-ma-bobs, in the pre-digital age, with the calendar pages that I changed religiously every January, but its main purpose was to hold the multitude of business cards I picked up along the way. I still have it, and it’s still useless. I love that stuff, like Moleskins and cool binders, cool bags and containers of any kind, but I don’t use them. Later, I had a stable of organizer software, which I did manage to use here and there. Contact management is a big deal when you’re in business for yourself. A careful bit of pondering about this phase of my existence begins to reveal the hint of a solution.

There were two pieces of software, which some of you may remember. ACT! and Ecco. Both were intended to keep us all organized. Act! was a very buttoned down, database-y thing which held my toes to the fire until I put things where ACT! thought they belonged. Ecco, on the other hand, was very loose and configurable to relate things the way I wanted. Guess which one I actually used. If Ecco existed today, I’d probably still use it.

Sometime later, I found mind mapping as a concept and a specific software tool called The Brain. I bought it way back when it was $50 and I used the heck out of it. It was the loosest, most connectable way of storing information short of a wall-size piece of paper and colored markers I had ever found. It still exists today, and it still looks great, but it also costs a lot more now, much more than I think it’s worth. The value equation looks like owning a million dollar car. How can you have a million dollars worth of transportation in one car? To add insult to injury, they seem to have gone the subscription route with the supporting services, so it’s like you never own anything at all. I hate that. Ixna on the ainbray.

But still, we’re making progress. Mind mapping works for me. Looser is better. I have no trouble seeing a wide panorama. I just need a way to connect the pieces until it boils down to something akin to a list, one that I can revisit reliably and has no connection to my own handwriting. By the way, I had one of those 3rd grade teachers who tried to make me right-handed with the swift strike of a ruler. My handwriting is clearly a result of post traumatic stress disorder, thanks to the well named Mrs. Moody.

With that tiny revelation in my pocket, I went looking for other mind mapping software with three requirements. Three being the number of things I can keep in my limited short term memory at one time. First and foremost, it must be comfortable to use. There are plenty of mind map solutions out there these days. Many of them are web-based, which I eliminate on the principle of wanting my data where I can see, control, and delete it without paying for a one-use subscription. Yes, I understand the value of seamless group collaboration, but it’s not a priority for me. The voices in my head communicate without a web service.

Second, it must be available on all my devices, and third, it must synch with those devices. So being an Android person, I started there. I quickly ruled out options using rules two and three and found a solution that was very comfortable on both PC and Android, a very elegant piece of software called SimpleMind. Appropriate name, I think. It does all the mind mapping tricks without trying to take over the world – or my PC. It synchs through Dropbox using very small files, so I can keep using my free subscription. As a bonus, it will import files from Freemind, which is the Linux mind mapper of choice. All connected, yes.

Leg two of the self-revelation stool is the use of containers. While my desk is generally a disaster zone, I tend to be very (maybe obsessively) organized inside my computer. This is especially true of the shallow end of the system, the files and programs I use all the time. Beyond that, the computer slopes off into a vast ocean of files that go back to the dawn of computing. I’ve done a lot of digital work in the past 25 years, and 99% of it is still living on a hard drive somewhere. It may sound stupid, but I have a hard time ignoring the deep end of the pool. It creates mental weight in the same way that having too much physical clutter does. I need boundaries. I solved it for writing a year ago. I write directly to a fast flash drive and back that up into the hard drive ocean. Just having that physical container takes the weight off of my brain.

Trivia: I have 1.87G of files in my writing folder.

As you probably know, I have another job. I made the mistake of mixing the shallow end of those files with my writing files on the same <GASP!> container. My own particular brand of OCD has problem with that. Now that I understand it, I can get another container for non-writing work. A little more thought reveals that I basically live with three containers. Writing, other work, and life. Three containers. My short term memory is able, just barely, to cope with that.

Leg three involves the very specific case of writing, which – my recent publishing rate notwithstanding – is worth its own category and tools. I always try to eliminate the overhead in a system, because I love to work, but I hate to prepare to work. I hate the part that involves finding and digging out all the things I need to get to work. (I also hate putting stuff away at the end, thus the condition of my desk). Renewal was written in good old Microsoft word. For a program that has been in development for half my life, that thing is nothing but overhead. The sensible control scheme is now buried in the Ribbon(tm) so writing a long piece of any kind feels like an endless series of digging things up. Plus, even when I’m not digging, that Ribbon(tm) is staring at me, as if daring me to go looking for some obscure formatting option. Then, when it’s time to edit a single file of novel length, the best way to get around is using the Find function, which means I’m constantly searching my own work. That, my friends, is why I’m even more bald than I was before Renewal.

The solution was easy, and reasonably priced as well. It’s a beautiful shining gem of software called Scrivener from these fine folks. I use it for two reasons. It has a natural way of breaking a novel down into manageable sections, which it will happily assemble for me at the end. Scrivener has a mode that eliminates everything on the screen except for the page I’m filling, and as a bonus, it keeps my cursor right in the middle of the screen. No more writing at the bottom and scrolling to the top. In that mode, it’s as close to zero overhead as software gets. Those are my reasons, but there are a lot more features for different kinds of writers, writers who keep lists, writers who use index cards, writers who want every last piece of supporting information bundled up in one place. It’s awesome for that kind of writer! Unfortunately, those things all look and behave like lists. Needless to say, I ignore all the shiny side buttons in Scrivener.

However, the developers seem to know that weird people like me exist, and they already have the solution for the list-averse. They make another piece of software called Scapple. What is Scapple, you ask? It’s a FREAKING MIND MAP for WRITERS! Write stuff anywhere and start connecting it any way you want. Then, Scapple will pump those freeform notes over into Scrivener. Beautimous! Heavenly! I just found it, and I’m cranked. Can you tell?

If you’re still with me, and I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t, what’s my point? My point is something I have said to a lot of writers who want to know how to write. Writing is about brain management. Since my own brain has been spilling over in recent months, I’m trying to take my own advice. Where are my lists, and notes, and calendars? You’re reading them. The only place it all simmers down into something worthwhile is right here on the page. Everywhere else is interconnected chaos.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

Serial Releases

I just learned about John Scalzi’s new story in thirteen parts, The Human Division. The series is set up to release a new $.99 episode every Tuesday. Up front, I’ll say that I’m a huge fan of John Scalzi. His Old Man’s War books are a premium example of what I think modern social science fiction is about. There’s plenty of action, lots of nicely built science fiction worlds and toys, and the whole series is inspired by the tough questions about what it means to be human in some very challenging circumstances.

What’s really interesting is that I released my first story in serial format, mostly by accident, I’ll admit, and it has done far better than I ever hoped. Hugh Howey (another excellent choice) was right behind me with his Wool series. For all I know, he was way ahead of me. I’m just going by release dates. I know it has gone even better for him.

So, now we have a top-of-the-line, bestselling science fiction author like John Scalzi taking a crack at the $.99 serial release method. I know I’ll buy it. Thirteen bucks is a lot cheaper than the hardcover books that I purchased with his name on the cover. (Bonus! Only one of those hardcovers has been chewed by a dog) I wonder, with his name, if Mr. Scalzi will get as many people as I did asking him if selling his story in one-dollar chunks is a scheme to rip them off. I certainly hope not.