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.

Housekeeping

Okay, it’s 2013, which blows my mind. As a kid, I distinctly remember thinking about how incredibly old I would be in the year 2000.  Note: I’m not that old. Kids…

Anyway, I’d like to point out a couple of news blog links to your right. One is a link to Trinity Mountain Homestead, a blog I should have linked long ago. I’ve been in touch with the author long enough to know it’s good stuff. The other is for Preserving Abundance, which is from a new internet acquaintance. I checked it out today, and it’s also chock full of good thought, good information.

Now for the elephant in the room: Decay. Where the heck is it? First let me point out that it actually pains me that it hasn’t been released yet. As I’ve hinted, but haven’t really explained, some significant obstacles dropped into my path last year. I still can’t explain, but if they happened to you, you would understand. Second, I’m painfully aware of the strengths and weaknesses in the Renewal series, and I’ve not only tried to address them in my writing, I’ve worked hard on creating a system that allows me to keep improving over the long haul. I’ve got a long list of check boxes that need to be filled in the Breakdown universe, and an even longer list of other stories to write. I’ve got stuff to say. It seems reasonable to learn how to make the system work in the near term, so that I can work more efficiently in the long term. The good news there is that I think I’ve found an editor who can call me to task on the larger structural issues in my books. That’s something I need. Let’s not forget that I’m still new to all this. I’d rather be realistic about the fact that I’ll be learning to write for the rest of my life than to blunder headlong into a huge pile of idiocy.

In any case, I feel like I’m on track again and rapid progress is being made. I’ll not make any promises about dates until I know more, but I’m quite sure that we won’t be having these kinds of chats for much longer. In the meantime, I appreciate all of your feedback, all the reviews, all of your patience, and all of your support. Thanks for reading!

It’s March Already?

Hi folks! I’ve been driving some of you crazy (along with myself and my wife) waiting for Decay. There are a number of reasons I’m still working on it, but the goal is to make it as good as I possibly can. As you can probably tell from the mistakes, Renewal was a test for me. I literally spent my adult life trying to convince myself to write. I mean, I wrote, but I never let anyone read the vast majority of it. I always ran up against the voice in my head who said, “Why would anyone care what you have to say?” There it is. That’s the argument that kept me locked down for 44 years.

I made a loophole for myself by calling Renewal an experiment in ebook publishing. “Hey,” the other voice said, “If it’s just an experiment, then you can totally screw it up and still learn something.” Under this loophole, I created the mental space to travel down the roads of Coffee County. I don’t need the loophole anymore. Thanks to all of you, I can sit down to write, knowing that I have a right to be there.

The catch (there’s always a catch) is that I now regard it as a professional activity, and I go after it with professional diligence. Without boring you with the details, Decay has six times the hours and effort involved, compared to the Renewal series. It doesn’t help that all three novels are being balanced against each other, and I’m here to tell you, 800,000 words do not balance themselves.

I’d love to tell you that Decay is coming right now, but all I can honestly say is that it won’t be long now. I’m two list items away from having my final revisions complete, and there will be a couple of rounds of proofing after that. There’s no guarantee that all this work will produce a better story, but it’s my hope that you will think it’s worth the effort.