A New Office

When I was in college, I lived in a very small apartment (440 square feet) in Toronto on the 17th floor of a 26 story building in a very bad part of town.  I lived on campus for my first two and a half years, but I partied too much, drank too much, didn’t get along with my roommates, my grades tanked and I needed a change.  In this little apartment with its dramatic view of other high rise, low rent apartment buildings called ‘University City’, I wrote most of my very first novel, To Cage the Eagle.  This novel will probably never be published, as it is very centered on the world of 1993, and it would need a lot of work to bring it up to date.  But in that crappy little apartment, the words flowed and I figured out that I loved to write.  The long walk to campus through the bad neighborhood and cold Canadian winters encouraged me to stay in on the weekend nights and write until all hours of the morning, and the isolation gave me time to study and to bring my grades back up so I could graduate on time.  Still don’t know how I did it, but I am sure that little apartment and the focus I was able to achieve  there had a lot to do with it.

After leaving that apartment, I bounced around to a number of places:  a basement apartment in Oshawa, ON, a brief house share with a friend of a friend (the worst roommate, ever) in Whitby, ON, a house share with a teacher and a police officer (I wish I had been able to stay there longer) in Whitby, ON, an apartment near Denver, CO, my first house near Denver, CO, an apartment in Kent, WA, a condo in Kent, WA, and finally, the house I am living in now.  In none of these places did I write anywhere as prolifically or as well as I did that first apartment.  Perhaps it was because I was working a lot of hours trying to build my career, or perhaps I forgot how important writing was to me, or perhaps the feng shui of each place was just wrong for me to write.

What I’ve always wanted, was a comfortable place to write and to read that discouraged distractions and felt as good as that first place. 

I think I now have that.  Over the last two weeks, I’ve turned my overstuffed office with all it’s mismatched furniture into a writing retreat.  I painted the walls a soothing green.  It didn’t turn out to be the exact shade I was looking for, but it’s close enough.  I bought all new furniture from Ikea… cheaper than the custom furniture I first considered, but took a lot longer to put together than I had planned.

I sorted through my books, and boxed up two full boxes of ones I would never read again and wouldn’t want my kids to read, and will be taking them to Half Price Books next weekend.  I even sorted through my old textbooks and put those in the ‘Get Rid of Box’.  I’m currently ripping all my CD’s over to digital storage so I can box them up and put them in the closet.  I invested in a credenza to store all the crap that used to clutter my desk.  I bought a nice looking file box to store my old copies of my manuscripts and research that once filled binders stacked on my shelves.

I wish I had taken a ‘Before’ picture, but here is the ‘After’ version.  I still need to get a comfy guest chair and a little ottoman that we can roll out from under the desk when two of us need to look at the computer.  I also plan on putting up a couple of nice pictures, getting a second monitor and a real monitor stand, but I ran out of budget for this month.  Maybe next month.

And yes, buying all this stuff seems a little… materialistic, especially since I have yet to make a dime from writing, unless you count the $14 I made from the sale of an article to Model Railroader Magazine back in 1986 or 1987.  But this is also my home office.  My wife will use it one day a week for working from home, and I have goals of doing that someday myself.

My primary writing space will still be the train back and forth to work.  But at least now my wife can watch TV at night and I can write without bothering each other, and we can both work from home (on opposite days), without wrecking our backs.

I’m almost caught up on my book reviews and remodeling.  My next entry will return to writing updates, and of course, I will again disappear for long periods as I actually write.  But now at least you know where I am.

 

DSC_0057

DSC_0055

I did find an old picture of my son at my old desk, and I think it’s pretty obvious that the new office is more conducive than the old one.

DSC_0047

Book Review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I held off as long as I could in reading Suzanne Collin’s final book in the Hunger Games series, Mockingjay, not because MockingjaycoverI didn’t want to read it, but because I didn’t want the story to end, and I didn’t want to read it while distracted.  I wanted to immerse myself in the story, and with as busy as I have been lately (which I will explain in my next blog entry), I knew that I would both be too tried, and wouldn’t have the time to really get into the story and enjoy it.

But I couldn’t wait forever, and despite my desire to read it all in a weekend, I pulled it from my shelf last week and read it in every free moment – on the train, in the car waiting for the train, or waiting for a meeting to start.

I don’t envy Collins.  By the time Mockingjay was being written, I suspect she had already realized the monster she had created with the Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and trying to write a conclusion to this series that did the storyline justice must have been absolutely brutal.  The scope of the story of Mockingjay is so much larger, especially in the first half, than the other two books because it has to be.  There is so much more at stake, and an average writer would have fallen prey to the cliché. The hero, especially in a story told from the first person, would have had to be instrumental in every scene in order to make the audience present.  But Collins is no ordinary author, and her considerable skill at telling the story allows the reader to skip long periods of time without feeling like they have missed something critical.  This is very difficult to do, especially when the scope of the story is so grand.

Again, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but the ending really surprised me.  It is not a typical ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ ending.  These characters have been changed – ruined even – by what they went through in the three books, and those who survive cannot possibly return to a life of leisure and happiness.  I had a very visceral reaction to the end of Mockingjay.  Gulp.  I swallowed and shook my head.  Not because I was disappointed or sad.  It just took my breath away, and was so surprisingly brutal, that I my chest ached and I struggled to cope with the end of the story.

I will read this series again, because I am sure that I missed so much on the first reading.  It has a assumed a place of reverence on my bookshelf, and I suspect it will heavily influence my writing through the rest of my life.

Writing Update

No, I haven’t just been reading books these days, I am still working on writing them.  More accurately, I am working on one, and while there isn’t a lot of progress in the area of word counts, I have been working on the plan.  What’s that you say, I thought he had a plan?  Well I did.  And it worked for the first half of the book, and the words were flowing like the mighty Columbia River.  Only not all of them were good, and my three plot lines and three points of view were competing for supremacy and none were going to win.  I needed to know, even more accurately than before, exactly what needed to happen in each and every chapter.  I also needed to do some lf the same edits (POV, chapter length) on this manuscript that I did on The Forgotten Road.

So what I’ve got now is about 35000 words divided up into twenty or so chapters, with three plot lines that wend and weave their way through this new world I am creating to work towards coming together.  But I can’t have them come together too soon, nor can they wait forever.   But since I am also planning this to be a 4 book series, I have to hold something back.

In order to keep this all straight, I’ve developed a very simple Excel spreadsheet, with the following columns.

Chapter Character 1 Character 2 Character 3 Notes
1 1564     Meet the Villain
2   1200   Meet the hero

 

Of course, I specify my characters names, and the first chapter is not about meeting the Villain, well, not really, but you get the point.

I had a few instances where I had chapters yet to be written, without a clear idea of what was going to happen in them.  I didn’t want them to become filler chapters, but I had a pretty clear alternating pattern that I developed between the plot lines that was difficult to drop halfway through the book, even though one of the plot lines had to wait for another one to catch up.  When these chapter gaps started to pile up, I jumped to the end of the book, and worked my way backwards.  In the end, I only had a couple of these gaps.  One I eliminated by dropping the chapter.  The other I plan to make use of to cover a little more back story to set up books 2,3 and 4.  Hopefully it’s not too obvious to the reader when I briefly abandon the pattern, and hopefully the adherence to the pattern doesn’t drive them equally insane.

I also bought some software called Fractal Mapper to help me lay out this fantastical world I am building.  Where TFR was built in the current world, this one uses a fictional world with some important geological features that are referenced in the book, so it was important for me to keep everything straight in my head.  Building a map pointed out a couple of issues that without a map, would have caused real heartache later in the story.

So with all of this planning pretty much complete, I should be back to writing very soon.  I don’t know how much having a plan this detailed will impact my enjoyment and fulfillment of writing, but I know I hate editing, and if this gets me out of that, I learn to live with it.

Book Review–Deliverance By James Dickey

DeliveranceI saw the movie version, at least the edited for TV version of Deliverance years ago, long before I ever knew it was based on a book by James Dickey.  In fact, I probably wouldn’t have even known it was a book, had it not been for Jason Black mentioning it to me as part of the review he did for me on my novel, The Forgotten Road.  He mentioned it, not just because James Dickey and I both wrote about canoe trips gone wrong (though in different ways), but because of how writing about the solitude of the wilderness can be difficult to capture with the written word.  You can write hundreds of thousands of words about trees and rivers, but you will lose the reader’s attention very quickly.  The story has to turn from one of physical challenges, to one of intellectual and spiritual challenges, or the exhaustion of your characters will be felt by the reader, but not in a good way.  You don’t get tired of the river or the trees in Deliverance.  The river is a character as out of control as the backwoods men who terrorize the city folk in their canoes.  The river is alive and clean and rough and cold, is both friend and foe, something to be revered, and something to be feared.

I admit, I was nervous reading this book, as the movie is famous for the scene that makes nearly every man uncomfortable. But I was surprised at how quickly that scene passed.  Whether it was actually short, or just flew by because the writing was so good, is hard to remember.  Perhaps the perspective of the written story diminishes the effect just a bit, or perhaps the movie spent more time on it, I ‘m not sure.

But the rest of the story, thought dated a bit now after forty years, still rings true.  At the heart is a man trying to figure out what is important, and how far he is willing to go to survive.  It’s a great tale, with well done writing and interesting characters.  It’s not for everyone, but I enjoyed dropping myself into that world for a couple of nights.  Dickey paints the reader right into the scene, and it’s a pretty cool place to be.

Book Review–Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

CatchCatching_fireing Fire by Suzanne Collins is the Second Book in the Hunger Games Trilogy, and it’s just as fantastic as the first.  Katniss Evergreen has survived The Hunger Games, but her method of survival has left her with ruthless enemies who will do anything to contain the damage she has done.  It’s almost impossible to write a long review of this book without lacing it with spoilers, and I just won’t do that.

The caliber of Collin’s writing is just amazing.  There are no wasted words, no areas that make your eyes skim or your attention falter.  Everything moves with ease and grace and horror, and it’s all wonderful.  I can easily see myself reading these books multiple times, and I find myself holding out from reading the third, so as to spread the enjoyment out over multiple weeks.  This series has snuck into my top three of all time, and will remain on my shelf (or in my hands) for years.

Again, if you haven’t yet read The Hunger Games, what are you waiting for?

Book Review – Warrior Writer by Bob Mayer

WarriorWriter

I picked up Warrior Writer by Bob Mayer shortly after the 2010 PNWA Conference where Bob Mayer did a full day workshop on writing.  I was doing a lot of volunteer work that day, so I didn’t get to see his whole presentation.  I bought the book instead.

These days, there is a lot more to writing than just writing.  Writers have to be more cognizant of marketing themselves and creating a career plan than ever before.  With the winds of change just a blowing in the publishing world, the onus is on the writer to make themselves successful.  The writing still has to be good, but lots of good writers aren’t getting published because they are afraid of taking control of their career.  The days of a publishing house supporting a new writer are gone (if they ever existed).  Publishers will support writers with a good track record, but it is up to the author to generate that history for themselves.

Mayer has written a lot of books, done a lot of speaking, and lived a very interesting life.  He’s a graduate of West Point and a former member of the Army Special Forces.  His approach to writing is to treat his career like a Spec Ops mission plan, and that’s what he talks about in this book.  I suppose, with my record as a software developer, I could write a book on writing based on all the lessons I’ve learned working on major software projects.  I do use many of the same techniques in writing that I do in creating software.  I just never thought to write them down and turn them into a book.

Unfortunately, this book seems more like a string of wandering blog articles than an organized work of non-fiction.  The irony of me pointing that out in a blog entry is not lost on me.  The formatting feels unprofessional, there are typos everywhere, and the paragraphs wander to the point that the first sentences often have nothing to do with the last.  Not just a logical progression, but  a completely different topic that makes you jump back and wonder what key word you missed.

The worst issue I have is that in some sections of the book, Mayer documents the responses he had to questions he was asked while giving his talk.  That is not a bad thing in itself.  What is completely odd, and downright annoying, is that he never shows us what the question was.  It’s like he just wrote down the transcript of what he said, dropped it into the end of a chapter, and called it valuable.  I’ve never seen this approach before.  It made for a very poor reading experience.

Mayer does make some good points and laces the book with interesting anecdotes from his Spec Ops days and his research.  My favorite section was the discussion of The Imposter Syndrome, which I have clearly suffered from for most of my life.  While this has very little to do with my writing, it is applicable to my work in software, and has led to some revealing discussions with my coworkers.

Overall though, the flaws in the presentation and in the writing hide much of the value of the book.  You may get some lessons out of it, but if you haven’t read a lot of other books on writing, read The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman first.  Hopefully Mayer will go back and do another edit on this one an clean it up.  Then maybe I could recommend it.

Book Review – Jack Absolute by C.C. Humphreys

JackAbsolute I met C.C. Humphries at the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association conference in July 2010.  he’s a tall, engaging man, with a passion for stage and story.  He did the keynote on one of the nights of the conference, and as a volunteer for the conference, I had the opportunity to speak with him a few times in the hallway or at the front desk.

I’m a big, big fan of historical fiction writers like Bernard Cornwell (Sharpe’s Rifles, Lord of the North, etc.) and CS Forester (Horatio Hornblower).  I love swashbuckling tales that teach me a little history, and tell manly-men stories.

I haven’t spent too much of my life learning about the American Revolution (where the story of Jack Absolute is set), so when I bought this book and had Mr. Humphries autograph it, I had high hopes that it would follow in the tradition of Forester and Cornwell, but teach me about an era that somehow fell through the cracks of my education.  In the end, Jack Absolute was a little disappointing.

I should also say, that at the time I was reading this, I was working my butt off editing my own novel, and it’s hard to switch out of editor mode.  One of the things I was guilty of in my book was using passive voice.  Luckily the free-lance editor I hired to look at my manuscript pointed this out to me, and I spent the better part of a month ripping out occurrences of ‘was’ and ‘had’.  I don’t think Humphries ever got that advice from an editor.  What’s weird is that some chapters were almost completely devoid of passive voice, while others absolutely drowned in it.   My poor wife had to listen to me grunt every time I read a paragraph laced with ‘was’ after ‘was’. 

The plot wasn’t bad, but the dialog suffered from overuse of clichés, too much localized dialect, and one line straight out of a James Bond movie (Goldfinger, I think).  The history of the era took an unfortunate backseat to the involvement of theatre in the story.  I understand that Humphries is a Shakespearean actor, and some of the history of the stage is interesting, but part of writing is to know your audience, and the people reading stories of rogues and battles are unlikely to appreciate the theatre quite as much.  Yes, it is integral to the plot, but it probably shouldn’t have been.  It seemed too contrived.

I really, really wanted to like this book.  But sadly, I just couldn’t, and I was disappointed that I hadn’t found another ‘go to’ author to read when my shelf was empty.

Book Review – Agent to the Stars – John Scalzi

AgentToTheStars John Scalzi continues to be one of my favorite authors, and Agent to the Stars is both original and wonderful.  Benevolent aliens discover earth and want to make first contact, but everything they have seen and heard about Earth (through watching seventy odd years of television broadcasts) indicates that humans are a nervous and twitchy bunch when it comes to interacting with aliens who don’t look like themselves.  And these aliens don’t look anything like humans.  They come up with an unorthodox idea of how to make humans understand that they come in peace.  And it doesn’t involve showing up in a big spaceship on the White House lawn.

This is, as I understand it, John Scalzi’s very first novel, one that he first released on line and told people that if they liked it, to send him a dollar.  Eventually, after thousands of downloads, Scalzi was discovered, and the book was published.  It has since been reprinted twice, and as of last week, is being made into an audio book, read by Wil Wheaton.  This, therefore is the book that kicked off a wonderful career (to this point).

Agent to the Stars is not your average first novel. It is solid and funny and there are few of what we in the writing business call ‘mechanical errors’.  Maybe none.  Certainly none that distracted in any way from the book. 

Scalzi works magic in his dialog, like no other author I know.  Every line fits the character perfectly and adds to the bond between the reader and the story.  You don’t need heavy tag lines in the story to know how the characters said things.  You’re sitting in the same room with them, and you just know how they said it.

Agent to the Stars is a great read, and I highly recommend it.