Monday, August 02, 2010

Pictures!

Hi All,

I can't promise I'll write much, but I'll try to be better with the pictures.  I finally downloaded everything off my iPhone so here are some of the more recent photos.   I'll get some videos up when (or if) I figure out why the videos off my phone imported upside down or sideways.  -- Lisa

The blanket messes with the cool, kid.

Father's day at the beach.

Parked by Daddy's mower.

Fun in the hammock at Grandma and Papa's.

Staying cool, but looks like trouble...

...cooled off with help from Brother.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Ch-ch-ch-changes

I’ve been blogging here at Cranium Outpost since November 2006.  A lot has changed in 3.5 years.  I went from this blog being mainly about my family, to a lot of stuff about my writing and a little about my family.

The good news is that for those of you who have come here to read about my family, you will now be less bored by my writing related posts.  They’re moving over to http://www.joebeernink.com/blog in an attempt to draw move visitors to my writing related web site, and to ‘consolidate my brand’.  Yes, I am now referring to myself as a brand.  I am really focusing on my marketing platform this year, developing a marketing strategy, and trying to gain both blog and twitter followers in the anticipation of selling my book, hopefully in 2011.

The bad news is that I now have another blog to maintain, and it is entirely likely that Cranium Outpost will be relegated to 2nd or even 3rd place behind that aforementioned writing blog, and DevScape, my technical blog, which I try to keep up to keep my employers happy and my non-writing career progressing.

For me, the change is bittersweet.  I hate stopping doing something that I love to do.  But I also know my blogging time is limited, and it is very important for a blog to be consistent in focus. 

So my hope is that people who want to know everything that is going on with me will be willing to check out two blogs.  For those who only care about my personal life and not my writing, I’ll try to update this when things are happening.  Maybe I can get Lisa to do some guest blogging.   For those of you who just want to read about my writing, check out JoeBeernink.com.  I’ll keep that as current as I can, and hopefully you can be part of the beginning of a beautiful new thing.

Monday, July 05, 2010

A Long Weekend

Weekends can seem long, or they can be long.  It kind of depends on how the kids are behaving, and how much you preplanned to get done during the days.

We didn’t plan a lot for this weekend and the kids seem to be behaving, so this long weekend is both long and a weekend.  It also gives me a minute to get caught up on goings on.

We live on a nice little cul-de-sac in Seattle suburbia, and last night we had a neighborhood Mexican Fiesta.  Nothing says 4th of July like tacos and burritos and Spanish Rice.  After the food came the fireworks.  The kids loved them.  I’m a little split still on the whole fireworks thing.  I think it’s a gigantic waste of money.  But I think aliens cruising over our town last night looking for a good place to set down and commence eating our brains would have decided to move on, thinking, “The little ones here spout fire from their finger tips and the big ones all have artillery in their back yard.  Their armies must be powerful indeed.  Let’s go somewhere easier, like the Middle East.”

The thermometer said it was 65 here yesterday, but that’s a lie.  It was brutally cold for July (now called Julyuary).  The wind was howling, and by the end, people were bringing out their winter coats, mittens and Snuggies to keep warm.

All that fresh air did me in, and I forced everyone in our house inside at 10:00 and I was asleep by 10:15, with fireworks still going on around us.

I’ll try to get some pictures uploaded today, but we’ve been having technical difficulties with my all in one printer lately, so no idea if this will actually happen.

On our docket for today is to go and buy new beds for the kids.  They’re outgrowing their toddler beds, and it’s time to get them big boy and big girl beds in the hopes that they will spend more time in them, especially in the evening, when bedtime is still too much of a fight.

Of course, the likelihood is that the beds won’t fit in their room, and we’ll have to switch them to the guest bed room which is larger, but not painted kid friendly colors, nor does it have the custom closet setup we installed in the kids room before they were born.  So I see that buying a couple of beds is going to lead to a lot more expenses in the near future.

The biggest change coming in the next few weeks will be the kids starting full day pre-school at a local Montessori school. For the last three years, we’ve had a fantastic nanny caring for our kids while Lisa and I work, but the time has come to challenge them a little more intellectually, and try to tire their very active brains out (again in the hope that tired brains lead to better sleep at night).  This switch is going to lead to a lot of other changes for us like figuring out how to pack lunches for them, how to get them out the door by 8:00 every morning, and how to make sure I leave the office on time every day to pick them up after work.  But that was all going to happen at some point, and it might as well be now.

We haven’t watched many movies lately.  Just one that I recall - ‘The Pentagon Papers" about all the skullduggery and lying that went on regarding Vietnam in the 50s, 60s and 70s.  I highly recommend this movie, and I can’t wait to see the sequel – ‘The Pentagon Papers 2’, about all the skullduggery and lying that went on during the 80’s, 90’s, 00’s and 10’s about Iraq and Afghanistan.  We’ll probably have to wait until 2040 to see that though.

I’ve read just one book in the last few weeks as well - ‘Steampunk’ – an anthology of Steampunk stories edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.  I decided to pick this up to better understand this genre, since I’ve never really spent much time with it.  Results were mixed.  Of the 14 stories in it, I really liked three.  Three or four more were good, and the rest ranged between interesting but not readable, to pretentious crap.  Only my OCD forced me to read the whole thing, and I’d be hard pressed to recommend it on whole to anyone.  I think it probably turned me off reading the genre much further, though a couple of the stories had enough there to make me want to read more of that author’s work.  Specifically, I liked

  • “Benediction:  Excerpt from The Warlord of the Air” by Michael Moorcock
  • “Lord Kelvin’s Machine” by James P. Blaylock
  • “Victoria” by Paul D. Filippo

As I said in my last blog, I’ve been blocked a little in my writing with a section that just doesn’t belong.  I’m in the process of ripping it out, but that’s leading to some other, more subtle plot changes, and that’s taking a while to get done.  I was hoping to wrap it up this weekend, but now I’m hoping for the end of this week.  Then I have to put the book down for a bit and go back to reread ‘The Forgotten Road’, and finish my prep for the PNWA Conference in three weeks.  July is a pretty busy month.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Hard Choices

I’ve been cruising through my latest novel and have surpassed the 40000 word mark, which is the magical half way point.  But if I’m honest with myself, I’ve cheated a bit, and that cheating is coming back to haunt me.

You see, three years ago, I started on a book, got twenty pages into it, and stopped.  It was one of those cases where I had a good scene in mind, but no plot to go with it.  It was my first real attempt at writing in half a dozen years, and while that story didn’t go anywhere, the act of writing directly led to me buying a laptop and starting to write on the train, which led to ‘The Forgotten Road’ and my enormous success since then to come.

But that scene and that character stuck in my brain, and last winter, when I was brain dumping plots out into my ‘What If’ file (a file I keep of one sentence ‘What If’ scenarios that might drive a plot), I what if’d a great little idea that could use that scene I had in those 20 pages.   So all along, from the time I started the outline until today, I planned to have that scene in the book.

Well now those 20 pages are in the story.  And they’re bad.  Spilling yogurt on the crotch of your pants at work first thing in the morning bad.  You can get away with it, pretend no one can see it, and cover it up with your jacket all day and say you’re cold, or you can go to the store down the street and buy yourself a new pair of pants and be done with it.  You know you’re going to need a new pair of pants eventually, because blueberry doesn’t come out of light tan Dockers.  And you can pretend all day that no one sees that white crusty smear on your pants, but everyone does, and they are all wondering… what IS that smell?

So this scene, and the premise of this scene is spilled into my story, and the blueberry is sinking in, and the yogurt is curdling, and I’ve been sitting there, knowing I need to rip it out, and take the five to eight thousand word hit, and do it right, because not only is the scene out of place, the writing itself is bad.  My writing is so much better now than it was three years ago, it’s not even funny.  And not only is the writing itself bad, the scene forces the characters to do things and act in a way that they just wouldn’t do based on the rest of the story.  It’s gummed up the whole mess, destroyed the flow, and made a mockery of my outline.

And yet, I can’t figure out exactly what to do different… yet.

So even though I’m at the halfway point of the book, I need to take a step back, and read and edit from the beginning, and see if the momentum picks back up, and see how that scene can be removed.  I need to by new pants.

Of course I’ll make a backup copy first… and I’ve still got that original scene, just in case I can find another place to put it.   I never throw anything (except adverbs) away.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Website Update

It’s a nice day in the PNW, so what do I do?  I upgrade my web site to ASP.NET MVC 2.0, .NET 4 and VS2010. Not too hard, but needed to be done.

I needed to get this done in order to prep for the 2010 PNWA Conference in July.  I’ve updated some information there, including posting a new short story that I entered in the Wil Wheaton/John Scalzi Fan Fiction Contest to Benefit the Lupus Alliance of America contest.  You can read ‘Under a Molten Sky’ on my short story page.  If you don’t read about the contest first, your first question will undoubtedly be “Why?”, or maybe it’ll be “What the hell?”, but it was a fun contest to enter, and who knows, maybe something good will come out of it.

I’ve also updated the first two chapters of ‘The Forgotten Road’, pending another major edit coming in August, and released the first working title (but no details yet, sorry) to my next novel ‘The Unexplored Territory’.  The title is not the final one.  In fact, I don’t like it at all, but I had to call it something.

So go out, browse, peruse, enjoy.

And by all means, let me know if you find any mistakes or broken things, and let me know what you think of the new first chapters to ‘The Forgotten Road.’

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Quick Howdy

I haven’t been writing here lately, because I’ve been writing elsewhere a lot lately.  As in my latest novel.  I’m hovering around the 35000 word mark, which in the world of 80000 word novels, is, you guessed it, almost halfway done.   I’m not going to spill the beans on this one yet, but when I read what I have done, it is easily my best work ever, and I think, really freaking good.  It is coming so fast, that if I could sit down and write all day, I could knock out the final 45000 words in less than 10 days.

Because I’ve been writing, I haven’t been reading as much, though I did read John Scalzi’s ‘The Ghost Brigades’ (good book, worth the read as the sequel to Old Man’s War).

I’m also reading a book my sister-in-law’s husband gave me for Christmas last year called ‘The Devil and the Dervish’, which is translated from Bosnian, I think.  I can read four or five pages at a time, and it’s 500 pages, so it may take me a while.  It’s not exactly Grisham-esque in its pace, but it is not…bad…

I’m also reading a collection of short stories called ‘Steampunk’ to become more familiar with the genre… not that my new book has anything to do with that…, and the stories are quite interesting.

Movie-wise, we watched Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” last weekend, good movie, a trifle long at times, but so worth it to see Grace Kelly.  I admit it, I have a crush.

The weather here in the Pacific Northwest currently sucks bull testicles.  It’s that bad.  Epically bad.  Atrocious.  Rain.  Cold. Rain.  Rain.  Rain. Rain.  Rain.  Rain.  More Rain. Sun (tease), Rain.  Rain.  Rain.  You get the picture.  The least amount of sun in Seattle since 1953, and we’re an inch of rain away from the all time wettest May-June ever.  And we still have 9 days left, with rain in the forecast for every one of them.

To keep our cheery dispositions, we’ve taken to watching uplifting TV series like HBO’s Dexter (Season 2), and the current season of ‘Deadliest Catch’.  Nothing like Miami serial killers and arctic storms to make you feel good about where you are.

In other news, I will be attending the 2010 Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association Conference in July, and I will be moderating the session entitled ‘Working to a difficult deadline’ which will be given by Gordon Kirkland, a Canadian author and humorist.  Two Canadians at the front of a room full of Americans.  Last time that happened, their names were Bob and Doug Mackenzie.

Lisa is heading to Denver this weekend for her first dance competition of the year, so I’ll be alone with the little ones by myself for a few days and nights.  We haven’t broken the news to them yet (so don’t tell them), since Lorelai freaks out when Momma goes for a twenty minute walk at night.  I may be heading to the store on Saturday morning to buy a bunch of movies if the weather doesn’t cooperate.

I was going to write – write tonight, but I had to reinstall a bunch of software on my PC, so you get this update instead.  Consider yourself lucky.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Reading and Reviewing

As I said in my last blog post, I’ve been reading a lot lately, at almost a dangerous pace.  So much so fast that it seems I could have a reading crash and injure my dictionary.  But I still am not as bad as my wife, who I caught reading while she was walking down the stairs two nights ago.  In a house with kids, not watching where you are going is really not a great idea.

So what’s been on my reading list?

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.  This is a pretty famous book about a computer science professor from Carnegie Mellon University who is diagnosed with cancer, and the inspirational last lecture he gave to his students and the faculty there.  It’s a quick read, but it isn’t always easy, and if you’re not careful, it may just change your life.  You should also watch the video of his last lecture (either before or after is fine)

I got a lot lighter in reading after that.

The Spellman Files, Curse of the Spellmans and Revenge of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz (Yes I read all three of these in the past month).  A series of novels about a private investigating family in San Francisco.  The books are good, pretty funny and a quick read, but they have one really annoying flaw that drove me nuts.  Footnotes.  Not footnotes as in references to other books, but parentheticals that constantly distract from the flow of the story.  As a writer, I’ve learned to never distract the reader and disturb the flow.  A couple of times, this might be fine, but, to do it so constantly is just annoying, and were it not for my OCD and the fact that my wife recommended the books, I would have stopped after book one.  My hope is that Lutz stops this practice going forward, or at least minimizes this device.  I’d like to read more about the Spellmans, but I’m on the edge about actually doing it if I have to fight through the distractions.

Life As We Knew It – Susan Beth Pfeffer – A great Young Adult Apocalyptic fiction book that will have you restocking your pantry by the last chapter.  We bought this book at John Scalzi’s recommendation.  Lisa loved this book and so did I. 

The Inside Ring – Mike Lawson – A disclaimer here, I’ve met Mike a couple of times at PNWA functions and got him to autograph this book.  This is a political thriller revolving around the attempted assassination of the President of the US.  It’s a good book, but I can tell that it is a writer’s first book, and it has a couple of flaws that I noticed as a writer, that the average reader my not.  I’ll read more of Mike’s work, and from what I hear, the writing gets better in the next book.

As for Movies, with the death of the 2009-2010 TV season, I’ve had more time to watch movies.  So here are the recent ones.

Seven Pounds – Will Smith – 3/4 Stars.  If you don’t tear up at the end of this one… then you weren’t sitting where I was last night. This was a much better movie than I expected, and I really liked it.

The Enforcer/The Dead Pool – Clint Eastwood.  Two movies in the Dirty Harry series.  I’ve been watching these to say that I have, but I was really glad they were only about 90 minutes of my time and that I watched them when I couldn’t really do anything else. 0/4 stars.  Keep those three hours of your life and use them to take a bath or something.

The Blind Side – Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw – A true story about a white family in Tennessee who takes in a disadvantaged black kid from the projects who goes on to play in the NFL.  Not a bad movie, and worth a watch, especially since I’m a big NFL fan and watched the draft where Michael Oher was drafted.  Bullock was good, but McGraw stole scenes with some great lines. 2.5/4 stars

The Hurt Locker – Oscar winning film about bomb disposal techs in Iraq.  Great movie, with really well done visuals and movie effects.  It is about the Iraq war, and there are a number of scenes that might be hard to watch.  It doesn’t drown you in them, but it doesn’t let you into a false sense of safety either. 3/4 stars

Crazy Heart – Jeff Bridges in another Oscar winning role.  Don’t expect to be uplifted by this, but the story isn’t bad, if not a little cliché at times. 2/4 stars

Notorious – An Alfred Hitchcock classic with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.  Good flick which seems a little cliché now… but it’s cliché now because everyone copied  them.  Every time I watch a Hitchcock movie, I gain appreciation for what he did. 3/4 stars

Surrogates – Bruce Willis – A pretty good, pure science fiction movie that I really enjoyed, but I like both SciFi and Bruce Willis, so this one may have been ideally tailored to me. 3/4 stars

The Lovely Bones – A slightly disturbing but good movie about a serial killer in the early 1970s, told through the eyes of one of his victims.  Based on a highly acclaimed book by the same name.  I haven’t read the book, but I still might, if I have time. 3/4 stars

The Commitments – A young man from Dublin forms a soul band to try to find a way out of poverty.  A great movie, but you’d better be able to understand the Irish accent to watch it, and you’d better like music.  3/4 stars

I think that’s pretty much it, for now.  It’s Saturday morning and it’s time to get some stuff done around here, so I can read more or write more or watch more this afternoon.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Gettin Wordy With It

It’s been almost a month since my last post, and I’m on the train, so his may be a bit jumbled.

The biggest news is that Reece has finally come to terms with potty training.  We spent a weekend really close to the bathroom, took away his diaper, and set a timer to go off every half hour.  We gave him a warning five minutes before the timer was going to go off.  We had a few accidents the first couple of days, but Lisa was quick on the draw when it came to recognizing the early signs of the type of accident that would have forced us to abandon our house and look for a new home to live in.  After a couple of days of hard effort, the general idea seemed to have sunk in.  The days have been getting easier and there have been fewer accidents, so it looks like we’re soon going to be on the hook for all the things we promised him a few months ago.  You know, the bike, the scooter, the baseball glove, the fire engine, the moon.

Lorelai has been really supportive of Reece getting potty trained because when he is going potty, and she goes potty, they both get mints as a reward.  That reward had been phased out for her a few months ago, but it came back when he started going.  And they also believe that mint rewards carry over from day to day, so if you went potty 4 times yesterday and only got 2 mints, you have two coming to you right after breakfast. 

The kids have really gotten into doing jigsaw puzzles of up to 100 pieces, though they’re a little better off doing 75 pieces and smaller.  They’ll do the same ones over and over again, and love it.  More importantly, we love it as it keeps them busy for hours.

Reece has become a computer geek, and somehow he learned how to type the 3 letter password I put on his login account on the computer, and he’ll sneak into the office and play pretty much any time of the day or night.  I blame Lisa’s brother, Eric for that.  Because I can.

The rainy weather in the PNW the last few weeks has put a damper on the outdoor fun with the neighborhood kids, so last Sunday we bought the board game ‘Candyland’ to try with them.  I knew I was in trouble when the board came out and Lisa disappeared upstairs to ‘do laundry’, leaving me with two of the cheatenist kids you ever did see.  It was like they didn’t even care about the rules.  All they wanted to do was to get to the ice cream cone.  And if their card said to go past it, they stopped on it and refused to move.  Daddy almost won the game and put an end to the madness, but I pulled the Gingerbread Man card on what should have been the last play, and I ended up back at the start.  The game went on until I helped Reece to win.

Lisa and I took a night to celebrate our 5th Anniversary in Seattle recently.  We went to a movie (Ironman 2… better than I expected), and were supposed to eat at a restaurant called ‘The Flying Fish’ but they decided to relocate, and failed to tell us that when we booked the reservation.  Since we had already paid for parking, we went across the street to ‘The Queen Street Diner’.  The food was pretty good, but not the best I’d ever had.  I wouldn’t be opposed to going there again, but it’s not at the top of my list.

The next morning we ate at Lola’s in Seattle for breakfast.  If you get a chance to go there, do it.  The donuts are amazing, and the potatoes incredible.

I’m back to normal hours at work after a couple of months of long hours trying to get some projects going.  We still have a lot going on, but I just couldn’t sustain those hours forever, and the switch back to normal hours is already having positive effects on my writing.  The words are coming easier, and my current book is coming along nicely.  I’m at about the 1/4 pole, and the plot line is holding to what I had planned out.  At this pace, the first draft should be done by the end of the summer.  I do have to go back and do some editing on ‘The Forgotten Road’ in preparation for the PNWA Writer’s conference in July, but that should only take me a couple of weeks, and depends on the availability of my ‘Book Doctor’.

One of the side effects of spring is that my TV watching drops down to almost nothing, and my book reading and movie watching (not the same as TV watching, even if it is watching a DVD) goes up.   I’ll cover the books and movies in another post, but I’ve been reading at almost a dangerous level, and it feels good.

The garden is just barely starting to produce a few leaves of spinach.  The weather has been down right cruel, and things are way behind.  We need some warm weather and some sun.   I had the sprinklers set up a few weeks ago, and I had to turn them back off as the gardens are just big mud pits.

Lisa is getting ready for a dance competition in Denver later this month, so I’ll have a weekend by myself with the kids, which should be… interesting.  I hope the weather is nice, but even if it isn’t, we’re getting out of the house at least one day, and doing something outside.

Anyway, I’ll recap books and movies later tonight, because, as always, my OCD requires I document my reading.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

More Words

So besides the reading and the movie watching, what’s been going on?

I’ve been working a lot the last few weeks, getting a few projects ready to go.  Things should start slowing down in mid-July, if we can get a few things out the door.  The company is growing, and that’s a good thing.  It also seems like the economy is coming back around, and that’s good as well.

I have started working on a new series of books, while taking a break from the Jake Clarke Series. I’m waiting for a book doctor I know (a freelance editor) to free up later this spring to take a look at ‘The Forgotten Road’ so we can polish ‘one-last’ version.  Then it’s back to looking for an agent.  But until book one in the series has stabilized, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to work on book 3+4.   So I jumped into another series that I’ve been working on in my head since before I' started telling Jake’s story.  This one is epic fantasy with a Twist.  Every author has to write fantasy at some point in their lives.  I like this story, and I’ve got it well plotted out, and I think it’s sellable, though I have broken the cardinal rule and not spent a lot of time reading fantasy.  Maybe someone else has already done this story, but I’m not going to worry about that until the first book is done and I try to market it.  This isn’t fluffy fantasy with elves and magicians and dragons, so no use in polluting my mind with that.

The kids are doing great.  We’re still potty training Reece, or rather he’s training us to accept that he will potty train himself at his own pace, not ours.  We’ve corrected some of the bed time behavior (thank you Super Nanny!), so we are all getting more sleep now, and we actually slept in till 8:00 AM this morning.  Of course we didn’t get home until 11:30 PM last night, but at 8:00 I was actually ready to get up.

The two of them love playing with other kids now, and we can turn them loose out in the cul-de-sac with the rest of the neighborhood kids and no one is coming in bleeding or crying with any regularity. 

My sister was out for a few days last weekend, and the kids had a great time with her.  They don’t often get that kind of dedicated attention, and it was good for all of us. 

We took a long road trip this weekend to Ephrata, WA to see Lisa’s Mom on Friday night, then from there to Richland, WA to see Lisa’s brother Eric and his family.  A lot of driving, but well worth it.  Eric bought a house a month or so ago down there, and it’s a really nice place to raise a family.

Lisa is doing well, and getting ready for the dance competition season to start up.  She’s been practicing a lot, and I’m hoping she brings home wads of cash so she can be my sugar momma while I retire and write for a living.

We’ve had a little problem in the garage the last few nights with stuff getting knocked over.  We knew something had snuck in.  We hoped it was a neighborhood cat, but after 4 night’s I finally discovered it was a possum (a big one), and it was hiding between the wall and the furnace.  We left the garage door open a crack last night, and it was gone this morning.  Hopefully it stays gone.  Kind of a freaky thing to see staring back at you.

The garden is planted, and things are coming up, though the cold start to the spring has severely affected the tomatoes and the squash.  I may have to replant some plants.  The garden is a lot easier this year, since I did all the hard construction last year.  This year it’s plant, water and watch grow.

Okay, time to make dinner!  Gotta go!

The Week+ In Words

I’ll start with books today, because the OCD in me says I must cover it.

I haven’t been reading a lot for fun lately, mainly because I am working on a novel of my own, am reading more for work, and am working a lot.  So this list is relatively brief:

Thursday Next:  First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde.  Fforde’s series is unique.  I guarantee you have read nothing like it.  This one is good, though not as good as the other Thursday Next books, but the man has a great concept and if I had it, I’d be cranking out the books too.

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank:  Written in the late 1950’s during the height of the Cold War, it’s one of the early ‘end of the world’ novels, better be prepared for a big change to civilization.  Not a bad read, but some of the dialogue didn’t age well, and some of the story seems a bit quaint these days.   I’m sure it was pretty edgy fifty years ago, but only worth a ready if you are a die hard apocalypse fan these days.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi.  I started following John Scalzi’s blog Whatever last winter when the big confrontation was going on between Amazon and MacMillan Publishing.  Old Man’s War is a GREAT science-fiction book, and a must read for anyone who is interested in the genre.  It’s a quick and easy read, but a great concept book, likeable characters and inspiring for writers like me. 

I’m currently reading Vacuum Diagrams by Steven Baxter, another sci-fi book.  I’m struggling to finish it.  It wanders through 5 million years of the history and future of the universe, with a series of vignettes that are tied together by very thin plot line.  It’s an admirable undertaking.  Pure sci-fi aficionados probably loved this book.  I’m more in the camp of “I can’t wait to be done it, and I wish I had never bought it.”  It’s not that it’s that bad, it’s just that it kills my desire to read anything else.   Kind of like having a bad sandwich at the only deli near your office.  You know you will eventually go back there, but it might be a while before you get the bad taste out of your mouth.  I’ve read Baxter’s stuff before, and it’s generally pretty good, but if I were his agent, I would have held this one back.  But what do I know?

Movie wise, if had a few clunkers too.

Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey, Jr.  Did not meet my expectations, which were probably too high.  It was okay. 2/4 stars.

Robinson Crusoe – The Pierce Brosnan version.  I’ve been watching this 20 minutes at a time for the past two weeks.  Really bad.  Epically bad. 1/4 stars – just because I refuse to give 0 stars to any movie I didn’t just delete from my queue after the first 20 horrible minutes.

To Catch a Thief:  Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.  Wonderful classic movie.  And now I understand why people loved Grace Kelly. 3/4 stars

The Informant!:  Matt Damon.  Interesting, but not great.  Felt kind of uncomfortable during the whole thing.  Kind of Fargo meets Catch Me If You Can.  2/4 Stars

Up In the AIr with George Clooney:  Good movie with good dialog.  But we have seen so many ‘talkie’ movies lately that we weren’t in the right mood for this one, and it was just not that enjoyable.  2/4 stars

Zombieland:  I loved this movie.  It’s right up there with Shawn of the Dead in the Zombie genre (did you know there was a Zombie genre?").  3/4 stars.  Brace yourself for the gore of the first 5 minutes.  After that it’s not so bad. 

Friday, April 09, 2010

A Moment in Time

I bought my first CD player back in the summer of 1992 while living in Toronto.  And then I did what everyone else did who was getting those new-fangled audio devices, I joined a CD Club.  BMG I think it was.

At some point during that membership, I bought Dire Straits’ ‘Money For Nothing’ CD.  All I knew about Dire Straits were the songs ‘Money For Nothing’ and ‘Sultans of Swing’.  I had no idea that ‘Money for Nothing’ was the song I’d like least on that album, and no idea that that album would change my life.  I didn’t know who Mark Knopfler was either.

I listened to that album a lot over the next few years.  I fell in love with the song ‘Telegraph Road’ because of the story it told.  I wrote my stories, and listened to the stories in that song, and on that album, and I truly appreciated the affect that a song or a story could have on someone.  I’m sure that that album had a lot to do with me writing my very first novel, and seeing it through to the end.

A few years ago I bought another Dire Straits CD - ‘On Every Street’. When I found out that Mark Knopfler, the lead singer, had gone out on his own, I started buying his CD’s.  I went through a phase where I wanted to learn how to play the guitar, and I listened to the way he played, and the way guys like Lindsey Buckingham played, and I though I knew I’d never play like that, I at least grew in my appreciation for the skill involved to not only write those story songs, but to play with such feeling, and such heart.

Last night, for the first time, I got to see Mark Knopfler Live on Stage at the Moore Theater in Seattle.  I paid an exorbitant sum for the best seat I could find – Row A Seat 5 on the left aisle.  I was a little disappointed in the the seat… I couldn’t see part of the band because a speaker blocked my view, and I had to sit a little sideways in my seat to see the whole stage.

But the performance did not disappoint.  It amazed.   I was 30 feet from Knopfler, and I could watch his fingers move on the strings like I had always imagined they would.  And the songs they played!  Oh the songs!  They started with ‘Border Reiver’, then ‘What it Is’, and covered a bunch of crowd favorites from some albums over the past few years.  But then he broke out some old stuff, and the crowd went nuts.  ‘Romeo and Juliet’ got the first standing ovation of the night.  There was an air of anticipation after that.  Woukd they playy any other oldies?  When the band started into ‘Sultans of Swing’, pure pandemonium.  I got the feeling that they don’t play those songs very often on tour anymore, but I could be wrong.  Who knew that was just the beginning?

First though, I’m a crowd watcher at these things, and I watch the band as well.  The crowd was in a state of euphoria like I have never seen before,  The people at the front are not those who are out for a casual concert.  These are devoted fans, who know their stuff.  And every one of them had a giant grin on their face.  Feet were tapping (I couldn’t stop mine for 2 hours).  Hands were clapping, people were singing along and just mesmerized by the talent on stage.  And not just Knopfler.  Everyone in the band was an amazing musician.  Some played 5 or 6 different instruments during the concert, some instruments I can’t even name.

He wrapped up the concert with ‘Telegraph Road’.  ‘Telegraph Road’ is eight minutes long on the album, and it was at least that on stage.  The crowd went insane.  The band took their bows, and the crowd demanded an encore.  We got 4 absolutely amazing songs.  ‘Brothers in Arms’, an instrumental, ‘My Shangri La’ and ‘Piper to the End’ to wrap it up.  There may have been a fifth, but I lost track.  

I  never thought I would see ‘Sultans of Swing’ live.  I hoped for ‘Romeo and Juliet’, but seeing Knopfler play ‘Brothers in Arms’, and ‘Telegraph Road’, all in one night, is something that I think few fans ever get to see.  I am so glad I went, and I wish I could go again tonight.  But I’m not driving to Portland tonight, not on 4 hours of sleep.

Last night was one of those moments in time that I will remember for the rest of my life.  I might not remember ever song, but I will remember just how joyous it was, and what it was like to get sucked up in the excitement, and to put your hands in the air and clap and cheer for someone until your hands hurt and your voice was gone, because they have just put it all out there and you never dreamed your get that when you plunked down your money for a ticket.

The greatest thing was watching how much Knopfler still loves to play.  The guy in the seat next to me leaned over and said, “He’s not doing it for the money.” and I agreed.  There was heart in the music.  Knopfler would close his eyes and scrunch up his face when the guitar solos got difficult, and he put it all into it.  The man can play.

I bought a ticket to a concert.  I received a memory to last a lifetime.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Week in Words – 03/24/2010

I’ll start off with a very funny exchange between my wife and Reece, as mommy was changing a very poopy diaper last Friday.

“That’s a big poop, Reecie.”

“No mommy, it’s not.  It’s a Good Lord.”

“What?”

“It’s a Good Lord, Mommy.  That’s what Daddy always says.”  He sits up just a bit, looks at the poop, shakes his head a bit, and says in a near perfect imitation of my inflection. “Good Lord!”

Who knew that potty training would become such a religious experience for him?

Moving on.

I finished the novella I was working on last week called “Izzy’s Story”, and merged it into ‘The Forgotten Road’.  It turned out to be about 9000 words long.  I then cut about 2000 back out of TFR, which is sitting right around 90000 now.  That’s a little higher than I want it to be.  There are probably some more places I can chop, but I still have to make sure I’ve wedged the scenes from the novella into the right places in the rest of the story, and then make sure it actually works done like this.   I’m still waiting on replies from two agents who have some parts of my books.  If I don’t hear from them by tax time, I’m thinking of trying out a book doctor (a freelance editor) to do a structural edit to see how far I am off target.  I think it will be a good investment, and I hope to learn a lot from it.

For now though, I’m probably not going to work on that book or that series for a bit.  Until all the aspects of that first book are nailed, I can’t really say book 2 is ready to be called done, and starting on book 3 seems a little premature.  Instead, I’ll explore a few other ideas I’ve been playing around with and see if any of them work out.

Work just got a whole lot busier this week as well, as we’re ramping up on a couple of big projects that will keep me busy through the end of the year.  I’m back to taking the first train in each day, which means waking up at 4:25 each morning.  Tonight I’ve got a 4:00 meeting on site with a client, which means I wont get home until 6:30.  Makes for a very long day.   But with this new project, we’ll be able to do some hiring to fill some open spots, and hopefully that will make my life easier in the long run.

Last weekend we had Lisa’s mom, dad and grandmother over for a day, and went out to a park in Tacoma with two of Lisa’s brothers and their families.  With that many kids running around, there wasn’t much time to sit down and talk to adults.  I don’t know why people say life isn’t always a picnic.  Sure seems that life is always like a picnic:  don’t touch that, don’t eat that, you have to share with your sister, stay away from the water, get out of the mud, don’t you dare throw that stick at her, stay where I can see you, that’s not a pine cone, damn it, does anyone have any antibacterial hand wipes?

Movie wise, we watched a great little movie on Sunday called ‘Saint Ralph’, a story about a 14 year old boy in 1957 at a Catholic school in Hamilton, Ontario who wants a miracle to save his mother who is in a coma and gets it into his head that winning the Boston Marathon is what God wants him to do.  Definitely worth the watch.

Reading wise, I’m slowly working my way out of my reading funk, and in the middle of Orson Scott Card’s ‘Shadow of the Hegemon’, a continuation of the “Ender’s Shadow'” series. 

There’s a bunch of new technology being released by Microsoft in April, and that means I’ll have a whole new slew of tech books to read.  I probably won’t get to read much for fun in the next few months, but maybe all this new stuff will be easy, and the books will be shorter than the last time.  Yeah, right.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Week in Words - 3/13/2010

I hit the wall last weekend.  I’d read myself into a stupor.  I tried to pick up a new book after finishing ‘The Motion of the Ocean’, but my give a damn index for reading had suddenly hit zero.  This happens to me every once in a while.  Sometimes it’s after a really good book that I don’t think any other can measure up to.  Sometimes I’ve just read so much in a short time that I’m just tired.  I believe this was a case of the latter.

In fact, I even had trouble reading a magazine for work this week, something I have to do for my job.  I just didn’t want to read.  I couldn’t concentrate.  My mind was blasé about reading, but it was spinning with something else.

Instead, I wrote.  New stuff.  We’ll, not exactly new.  It’s still in the Jake Clarke world, but it’s a short novella currently called Izzy’s Story.  One of the criticisms I’ve had with ‘The Forgotten Road’, is that not enough happens in the first 50 pages, and another is that the antagonist isn’t introduced until the third act.  I’ve resisted making changes to the story to fix this because there’s no easy way to do it.  I can’t just go and add two hundred words somewhere and call it good.

In order to do what needed to be done, I would have to shunt in a complete second story line into ‘The Forgotten Road’ without spoiling one of the plot points of the first story line.

What I decided to do was to write the second story as a novella unto itself.  I figure it’ll run somewhere between 8000-10000 words.  When it’s complete, I’m going to inject it into the appropriate places into the original story.  Of course I’ll have to chop out a few thousand words from the original story, and edit this one down a bit as well, but that’s pretty doable.  I know where I have to cut.

I do have a fear that the story will end up being too choppy and the dual story line will feel too separate.  But if I’m going to fix the issue, I need to start somewhere.

My worst fear is that people will like the second story better than the first.  That will completely screw up my vision for where the story is going.  I’ll try not to make the second story too good.

Anyway, progress on the second story is going well.  I should wrap it up in the next few days.  Then I’ll edit it down, figure out where to make the breaks, and insert them into TFR.  Then I’ll edit for length and flow.  I figure I should be done this revision by the end of March.

That’s the plan anyway.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bedtime Tally

Bedtimes for 3 year olds are a bit of a challenge.  Tonight was extraordinary.

  • # of Bathroom trips:  2
  • # of Poopy Diapers after bathroom trips:  1
  • # of shredded books:  1
  • # of broken closet shelves:  2
  • # of times door opened with one kid crying because he pushed me or she hit me: 2
  • # of times Daddy walked into bedroom to find kids hanging off the headboards of their cribs: 2
  • # of times Daddy went upstairs to tuck in / change diapers / pickup shredded books:  6+?
  • # of times Daddy yelled up the stairs to go to bed:  8+
  • Time between bedtime and last trip up:  1 hour 35 minutes, and they’re still jibber jabbering.

Aaaaak!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Music behind the… Man?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who ties certain songs to phases, days or people of my life.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what songs have are part of my personal history.  In some cases, it’s more than a song, its a whole album.  The albums tend to remind me of years.   SIngles remind me of people, or emotions.

The emergence of digital downloads will undoubtedly have a huge impact on this and the next generation’s view of the world.  My generation will probably be the last one to identify a summer with an album.  They might identify with a single song, or a one hit wonder, but how many will know about the conversation that the Eagles had with their fans on the Hell Freezes over album, or Eric Clapton saying ‘See if you can spot this one’ on the intro to Layla on his unplugged album, or the way the songs on U2’s Joshua Tree just flowed.  You don’t get that effect listening to the album on shuffle on your IPod.

So here are some of the songs / albums that just mean something to me.  Not that they are / are not my favorite songs, but I just tie them to a certain something (In no particular order)

U2 – Joshua Tree – High School Bus rides.  I listened to that over and over again on the commute from hell.

Mickey Mouse Disco – Our first Halloween Party as kids, and Paul Jensen splitting his pants on a dance move.

I’m Moving On – Rascal Flatts – Reminds me of my move to Seattle, even though I moved before this song was released.  It pretty much summed up what was going on in my life at that time

Old LA Tonight – Ozzie Osborne – My days working on the ASPEN project in Oshawa, Ontario for EDS in 1995.  Played that song over and over again.

Bon Jovi – Slippery When Wet – Ninth Grade, riding the school bus, again, and having the bus driver pull over to tell someone to turn off the music, since we were having battle of the ghetto blasters in the back.

Fire Woman – The Cult – Playing pool at The Walrus, a bar near Pearl St in Boulder, Colorado

500 Miles – The Proclaimers – Dancing with a bunch of friends from college on a road trip north of Toronto either on a long weekend or the beginning of summer.  We were all doing this goofy dance, and it was pretty freaking hilarious.

Highway Junkie – Gary Allen – Dancing with my friend Brandy at McCabes in Tacoma.  We always lit it up with this song; that was until she caught me with an elbow to the chin on one of the spins and nearly knocked me out.

Zombie – The Cranberries – Living in a basement apartment in Oshawa, Ontario below a family where the husband and wife were always having screaming matches over money.  I always heard more than what I wanted to, and I felt really bad for their kids.

Van Halen’s Balance Album – Living in Detroit in the fall of 1995, cruising through town with the stereo on my black Pontiac Sunfire just screaming out Sammie Hagar

When You Need My Love – Darryl Worley – Reminds me of the last girl I dated before I met my wife.  That wasn’t such a healthy relationship.  I actually told her at one point that this song made me think of her, and she was upset.  She probably should have been, but it was accurate.

Half Way Up – Clint Black – This song stuck in my head when I used to ride my bike a lot. Easy to sing, and a good cadence on big climbs

Take Me away From Here – Tim McGraw - The early days of dating my wife

Fortunate Son – CCR – My First Novel.  Listened to this one a lot while writing it.

Jack and Diane – John Mellencamp – We had a foster kid for a while named Walter, and he played this, and Journey’s “Who’s Crying Now” a lot.  I don’t remember liking Walter a lot, but I remember the music he got me into

Gordon – Barenaked Ladies - My third year of university.

The Best Day of My Life – George Strait – Standing up with my friend Brandon at his wedding, and trying not to cry.

McClaren Furnace Room – The Watchmen – A guy named Randy Irwin who I knew only for a year or two back in 1994-96, who had a tremendous influence on my life.  I wish I hadn’t lost touch with him.

Everywhere – Tim McGraw – The first house I ever bought in Broomfield, Colorado

My Little Girl – Tim McGraw – Driving back and forth from home to the hospital after the twins were born and Reecie was in the NICU.  I remember rounding the curve on River Road in Puyallup with tears running down my face and worrying that I was going to have an accident.  It’s not like there is a place to pull over there.

Workin For a Living – Huey Lewis – Working the midnight shift at the Forest Golf and Country Club and getting in trouble for having the music too loud.

Fred Bear – Ted Nugent – See previous entry

Anyway, that’s all I have today.  I’m sure I’ll think of more later.  It’s probably easier to list the songs that don’t mean anything to me.

We came, we saw…

We did not ride.  The weather failed to cooperate, and the couch and the kids did. So instead of trying to ride two days in a row, I napped, and drank hot apple cider.

Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Inspired

As I said in my last blog entry, I just finished reading ‘The Motion of the Ocean’, and also mentioned that I used to have B-HAGs of my own, including my two or three years of long distance cycling. 

I was living in Colorado at the time, didn’t know a whole lot of people, and started riding my bike for exercise.  I then started getting more and more serious until I was riding organized rides with the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club, and in September of 1996, I completed my first metric century (100 kms) in a single ride.

In 1997, I got a lot more serious and started training for the Denver to Aspen Classic, a 200 miles in a day ride that is pretty damn hard, considering there are 4 10000 foot passes.  I rode over 2000 miles in training that year, but in the end, I dropped out of the ride that day at 112 miles due to stiff headwinds, an aching knee, and a bonk that I couldn’t fight through.

My body physically gave out after that summer of training, and I spent most of the fall and winter fighting a case of mono that kept me out of work for 3 months, confined to bed or the couch for days at a time.  It was, I believe, the lowest point of my entire life.  A walk to the end of my driveway would sap my energy for hours.  By spring 1998, I was healthy again, but I had lost so much weight and so much muscle mass, that I didn’t ride more than a few miles that year.

In 1999, I moved to Kent, WA, and never really got back on my bike.  I rode a few times, but I had a much busier life, and never felt the desire to ride.  Kent wasn’t the most friendly area for bicyclists either.  Partway through my first ride, I was nearly made a hood ornament on some redneck’s jacked up pickup truck.

Today, after spending the morning doing yard work and having a late lunch, I looked forward to having a nice nap on the couch.  I was actually on the couch, and asleep when two little ones who refused to take their naps woke me up.  They were sent back to their rooms, and I tried to get back to sleep, but it was no use.  I was awake.  And my mind was on.

I was thinking about riding.  The weather was beautiful today, the wind was light, and I still had some energy left in my legs.  I fought the idea for a few minutes, the decided to just do it.

Things didn’t start out so well.  Both tires were flat (expected), and the rubber nose piece fell off my Oakley riding sunglasses as I put them on.  The cycle computer was dead, so I’d get no feedback on my ride for length or speed.  It took me a few second to remember how to clip my feet into the pedals on my Bianchi, but after a few turns I was off and pedaling.  It was just like riding a bike, but not quite.

In the past few years, I’ve lost a great deal of function in my thumbs due to Charcot Marie Tooth disease.  I’ve tried physical therapy, stretching and acupuncture, but nothing seems to work.  Today, I discovered, that functioning thumbs are really critical for two things:  shifting gears, and braking.  I figured out how to do both with less orthodox grips on the handlebars, but for a second, I was really worried.

The greater worry was that as I pulled away from the first stop sign, I heard a clunk.  I looked behind me to see that part of my bike had fallen off.  Specifically, my pedal had fallen off.  I had taken the bike in to be tuned up last year, and apparently, they forgot to tighten it down.  It took a moment or two to get it back on, and for the rest of the ride, I was a little worried, but it held.

Back when I was a serious rider, I often rode in pelotons, those large groups of riders that you see in races and organized rides that achieve mythical speeds by literally sucking the riders along in a draft.  The rides in pelotons were some of the most awesome experiences I’ve ever had (on a bike). 

I remember one day, I was about to take my turn at the front of a pack.  It was early in the ride, and we were charging up a hill near Castle Rock, Colorado.   As I pulled into the lead, I slammed into a higher gear, and shouted with bravado, “Okay boy’s, let’s go.  It’s a big ring day.”  Which basically meant we were going to keep the bikes in top gear all the way up the hill.

And we did, as I recall.  I cranked with everything I had.  There was whooping and hollering as we got to the top, and I began to drift back into the pack.  One rider shouted at me “Thanks for the pull, buddy”, and the whole pack disappeared down the hill.  Without me.  I had spent everything I had on that climb trying to impress people with the hope that I could hang on to the tail long enough for the lactic acid to work its way out, but by the time it did, they were out of sight.  It think I had 71 miles left that day in an 83 mile ride, and I was doomed.

Anyway, today was not a big ring day.  It was barely a medium ring day.  On a day with no real wind, I was downshifting on the flats and couldn’t carry speed down the hills.  I got off the saddle only three or four times for short bursts of 4-8 pedals.  I used to be able to stand up for a quarter mile on a 15 degree grade at the top of an 18 mile climb (Left Hand Canyon, near Boulder, CO, my favorite ride of all time).

I struggled over what might have been 8 miles, to keep my cadence up, and prayed I’d hit green lights at the end of the ride so I wouldn’t collapse on my shaking legs.  I got back to the house, and parked the bike, and drank a lot of water.

But a few hours later, when the initial shakes had warn off, the euphoria of a good workout kicked in.  The runners high.  And I wondered if I could do it again tomorrow.

We’ll see.

The Week in Words

I finished a couple of books this week, despite a new addiction to the TV show Dexter, which is chewing up my evenings at an astonishing rate, and giving me weird dreams to boot. 

“The Motion of the Ocean” by Janna Cawrse Esarey is a true story of a Janna and her husband Graeme’s Big Hairy Audacious Goal (B-HAG)to quit their jobs and take a two year honeymoon by sailing 17000 miles around the South Pacific, from Seattle to Hong Kong.  The opening lines of the book are two of the best I have ever come across: 

"Somewhere fifty miles off the coast of Oregon I realize the skipper of this very small ship is an asshole.

He also happens to be my husband."

This book is not chick-lit, at least not like the chick lit I ever, um, heard about, so guys shouldn’t fear that it’s all about PMS and the horrible consequences of mismatching nail polish to lip gloss.  While the book is definitely from Janna’s POV, being a guy allows me to guess exactly what Graeme is going through at the same time Janna is describing her reactions to certain events.  I think guys might get even more out of this book than they think.

My fear of deep water, along with my horrible sense of balance keeps me away from trying to sail around an ocean.  Okay, Lisa also keeps me from it, but I remember my days of having B-HAG’s (anyone remember my long distance cycling days?).  I know how those goals can change someone, and this book pretty much nails my experience as well.  Well worth the money.

I also finished reading “Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us” by Jessica Page Morrell, another local author (she teaches at Evergreen State College in Olympia).  It’s a non-fiction book, a writing guide from the point of view of an editor who has been called ‘The Angel of Death’ by her clients.  There’s a lot of good stuff in this one, especially what she calls her ‘Deal Breakers’.  I know there are a few of her deal breakers that apply to my writing, and at some point I’m going to have to tackle them.

It’s definitely good to read a few different writing books, because you begin to sense the general pattern, and sooner or later the ideas get drilled into your head, even if you don’t remember everything.  I still like Noah Lukeman’s “The First Five Pages” the best, but this one is in a close fight for number two with Steven King’s “On Writing”.

As far as movies go, last night we watched a documentary called ‘Helvetica’ about the development of fonts in the last half of the twentieth century.  (Don’t we know how to party on a Friday night.)  It was interesting, for about the first 40 minutes.  It was at least 20 minutes too long for my tastes, and I actually dozed off for at least ten minutes, but to be fair, I was exhausted when we sat down.  I would recommend it as one of those that you watch for half an hour while you are riding a stationary bike or something else, but definitely not while driving.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

My Feng Shui of Writing

I wrote my first novel in college, living in a bachelor apartment in Toronto near York University in 1993.  It was a very small place,  440 square feet with faux parquet floors, on the 17th floor of a 26 story building, about 3 blocks from one of the most notorious intersections in Canada – the corners of Jane and Finch.  This was a place you didn’t walk around alone a night, male or female, and when I was alone, late at night after a night of partying on campus, I usually ran.  Jane and Finch was the address for a small shopping center nicknamed Murder Mall.  I kid you not.  It was a scary freaking place at times.

In that tiny little apartment, in a crappy chair my father bought for five bucks from a bank being remodeled, I wrote that first book “To Cage the Eagle”.  I wrote pretty much every day, and the words just flowed to the tune of about 170000 words by the time I was done.  Actually, I finished the book in a townhouse in Waterloo, Ontario where I was working during the summer, but that first apartment was where I built a writing cocoon that I have yet to be able to duplicate.

To my left, I had heavy drapes over a glass wall that looked east to another apartment block.  If I opened the curtains just a bit, and leaned back in my chair, I could almost see downtown Toronto.  If I was brave, I could step out on to the 3 foot wide balcony, and get a better view, but that was taking your life into your hands.  More than once there was gunfire in my neighborhood, and standing out on the balcony was just asking to be target practice for someone.  The night the Blue Jays won the world series in 1993 was like a wedding celebration in Beruit.

I had a stereo at that point with my first CD player, and the sound was crisp and solid, and I alternated whatever matched the mood of what I was writing.  I wrote a chase scene to CCR’s “Fortunate Son”, and wrote the aftermath of a military battle to Dire Strait’s “Brothers in Arms”.  Most of my writing was done to Bon Jovi, Enya, Dire Straits and Beethoven.  Hey, I had, and still do have, very eclectic tastes in music.

I had an afghan that I used to wrap around my legs, and a huge root beer mug full of hot tea that I constantly refilled as I wrote late into the night.  I made sure all my studying was done before I sat down to write, or I would have never gotten it done.  I’m just guessing, but I’d bet I routinely wrote a couple of thousand words a night, and sometimes, as many as four or five thousand.  I’d force myself to bed at 3:00 AM, exhausted and my mind still churning.  These were the days I could survive on 3 hours of sleep, and I routinely did just that.

What I remember most about that place was the way my banker’s lamp, perched high on the hutch over the desk, created a cave of light, barely illuminating anything more than 10 feet from my chair.  The rest of the world didn’t exist.  I had a small, 13 inch TV with crappy reception, but I never turned it on.  I had stacks of books everywhere, and a bike up against the wall to the right of the desk.  But those all just disappeared into the darkness.  It was me, the blue screen of the computer, maybe some research material, and the story. 

When I left college, and started working, I brought all that stuff with me, wherever I went, and set everything back up exactly as I had it, but it was never the same.  I worked long hours.  I had a car that made it easier to find places to go at night.  I watched more TV.  I lost touch with the stories in me.

I wrote, every once in a while, from 1994-2008.  14 years of 25 page starts, and then distraction.  Writing was suddenly too hard, and life was too busy.  I was out in the real world, building my career, making money, and doing all the things I couldn’t do when I was just a poor student in North York.  I had a few stories in my head, and I thought, hey, with just a little effort, I could sell my first novel and be a millionaire like Tom Clancy.  Writing was my fallback career if this computer thing didn’t work out.  And besides, I just couldn’t find a place that felt as right as that little apartment in Toronto.  I had to have a place like that back before I could write again, didn’t I?

Fast-forward to 2008, and replace the quiet isolation of the 17th floor, with a commuter train running at 60 mph with fifty people sitting around chatting and snoring and clearing their throats and bumping my arms.  And it seems like that is the only place I can write now.  The evenings are suddenly too short, and the mood isn’t right, and there’s something on TV I just have to watch, and the kids won’t go to bed, and I have to log on to work.

I still have the lamp, the afghan, the music and the mug.  The chair is gone, as is the stereo, and the desk has been replaced.  But the ideas for the stories are there, and I know more about writing well than I ever did before.  I’m not exactly sure which story is next, but something is coming.  I feel the need to write.

And as soon as I get over this cold or flu or whatever it is that has had me bed ridden for the past 24 hours, and as soon as the Olympics are over, and TV sweeps week is done, I’ll get back to writing at home, and not just on the train.  Right?

Write.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Random Stuff

A few happenings and goings on…

Lisa and I have been slowly working our way through episodes of Season 1 of ‘The Big Bang Theory’.  Pretty funny stuff.  Sheldon is hilarious.  I try not to watch too much TV these days, but sometimes you need half an hour of funny, and these guys bring it.

I’ve also been watching a British series called ‘The IT Crowd’ via Netflix on Demand.  Also very funny.  Especially the first two episodes.

We’ve watched a bit of the Winter Olympics, but since Prime Time for NBC is 8-11 and I go to bed at 9:30, I don’t get to see much.  I try to catch stuff on-line once in a while, but it’s hit and miss.  NBC’s coverage has been horrible, and as I’ve said many times on Facebook, it sucks Donkey Balls.

The kids are doing well, though their annoying habit of not listening to us is getting really old, especially around bed time.  They just don’t get that it is not okay for them to watch TV at the top of the stairs every night.  Friday night, I was going to watch the movie ‘District 9’, but one of the previews was for a horror film, and Lorelai saw a scene that was pretty scary, and for a while there, I thought we were in for a really long night.

We spent the weekend doing yard work, and have the gardens ready to go for the year, with the exception of the kid’s garden, which just needs a little more dirt.  I don’t think their vegetables are going to grow much this year, since peas and beans aren’t resistant to the Tonka Bulldozer fungus, but we’ll give it a try and see how it goes.

I’m currently reading ‘Boneshaker’ by Cherie Priest, who I met at last year’s Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference.  I like the book, though the beginning was a little… forced. She had to cover a lot of back story in a short amount of time.  I know how that goes.  The middle is pretty good and makes me want to keep reading.  It’s my first foray into the genre of SteamPunk and Zombies.  I don’t think zombies will make many appearances in my books, but you never know.

On the writing side of the house, my break from writing (to read and do some other things), is quickly coming to an end.  I was planning on working a whole other book, separate from the Jake Clarke series, but I’ve been forcing myself to try to figure out the plot for the next book in the JC Series, which eventually turned into the next 2 books, thanks to a suggestion by my wife.  I’ve had the 3rd book figured out of a few days, but the 4th was giving me headaches, until this morning, when I finally hit on a plot that made the hair on my neck stand up.  That’s usually the sign for me that' I’m onto something.  So with a little more refining over the next couple of days, and I’ll have the general outline.  Then I’ll dive a little deeper to make sure there aren’t any major holes, and break the plot for each into acts.  Once I know where each act is going, it’s time to write.  Hopefully this approach minimizes the full scale re-writes that have plagued the first two books.  We’ll see.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Heavy Reading – Stephen King, ‘Under the Dome’

I always keep a book with me when I am riding the train, in case the battery on my laptop dies, or I am uninspired that day, or I just need a break from writing.  Sometimes I have required reading for work, a tech magazine, or some new tome to do with software development.  These development books are rarely less than 400 pages, and usually closer to 800.  I make every effort to read them as quickly as possible so I don’t have to lug them back and forth to work.  I set a page count to read on each trip, and will usually stop writing all together while I am reading them, otherwise it’d take me months to get through them, and no one wants to lug that kind of weight around that long.  By the end of the book, I am usually page skimming, but that’s okay, I’m just trying to find the good stuff.

Rarely do I find a novel where I need to use the approach that I have to read it fast to get it out of my backpack.  I can honestly say I’ve never had a novel I refused to bring on the train with me at all.  That was until I got my secret Santa present at Christmas:  Stephen King’s latest, “Under The Dome”.  This behemoth ran 1074 pages.  By my count, at about 315 words per page, and 1050 of actual writing (there were a lot of section breaks) that’s about 330,000 words.  That’s 190,000 words longer than my first version of ‘Nowhere Home’ that was rejected because it was too long.

‘Under the Dome’ stayed at home, and I read it at night and on the weekends, and I got a different book (actually several different books) for reading on the train while I slowly worked my way through it.

So how  was it?  Good.  No buts about it.  It’s a damn good book.  I hated the antagonist, cheered on the protagonists, and empathized with the supporting characters.  There were times where I told my wife I just wanted to reach into the pages and strangle the antagonist.  That’s how a book should make you feel.

Did the size of the book detract from the enjoyment?  Maybe a little bit, but after reading King’s ‘Dark Tower’ Series, I’ve changed my approach to reading fiction.  I don’t read to get done.  I read to relax and to hear a good story.  And this is a great story.  It’s memorable, and perhaps the size actually made me enjoy it more, because I knew I was going to be invested in it, and I wasn’t going to read it all on a Sunday afternoon, and have forgotten about it by the next morning.

If you have the time, I recommend this book.  Turn the TV off, curl up by the fire, or out on the deck under a heavy blanket, and read for an hour.  Then repeat that for a couple of weeks.  But don’t treat it like a race.  Just enjoy it.

Part of me hopes that I can someday write a book like ‘Under The Dome’, with a huge cast of characters, great dialog, and a ‘faster and faster’ pace.  But part of me is utterly intimidated by it, and there are few writers who can do it.  King is one of them, and ‘Under The Dome’ is a great book, and not a bad workout as well.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Writer’s Block

I’ve spent a lot of time editing the last few months, and have done little new writing.  I’ve been trying to get the two completed books knocked into shape so I can turn them over to an agent (if I ever find one), and get on with my writing life.

I’ve gotten some feedback on the first book from a couple of different people over the last month or so, and while it’s moving in a positive direction, there still seems to need to be more work done on the first few chapters.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to fix what needs to be changed, but I’m edited out at this point, tired of looking at the same book and the same characters for the last 18 months, and ready to get onto something new.

So, this morning, armed with all the lessons learned from the past two books, and all the reading I’ve done about writing, plots, planning, style and themes, I sat down and tried to write a synopsis for my next story.

And I drew a blank.  Not a complete blank.  I have scenes in my head for at least four different stories.  I have characters in my head. I just don’t have a plot in my head.  I can’t figure out what the conflict is, and where to put people to push them somewhere else.  And that’s what I need in order to start.  Otherwise, I don’t know where the story is going.  I’ve been down that road before, many times, and I end up with forty to seventy five pages of a story that goes nowhere.  A writing exercise, maybe, but a bad exercise, like lifting with your back instead of your legs.  Your writing gets injured like that, stuck in dead end books, and gradually your love of writing dies a slow death under the weight of half finished failure.

I feel the need to get my ideas organized.  The software architect in me says I can write some pretty cool WPF application with a SQL Server backend where I can input my story ideas, plot, characters and scenes, and in no time, I’ll be back to writing, inspired by  the organization and brain dump.  But the realist in me knows that I will end up with software that is barely what I want, (“Look at what I drew Daddy” - “That’s a great turtle, son” -- “It’s not a turtle, it’s you, daddy”)  and have burned dozens of hours when I could have been writing, reading or doing something else valuable.  

So I’ll spend a little time out on the internets tonight, Binging (not binge ing – bing ing) and Googling for something that already does what I want, and will end up using Word or Excel.  Or maybe a whiteboard with post its… it I can keep everything out of the reach of the kids.

Oh yeah, I need to find something to take this fucking glare off this Acer 1420p-iece of crap.  This is the first day since I got this thing that the sun has been up / out on the train ride home, and it’s almost impossible to see the screen. Arg.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The week in Words

I haven’t blogged in a whole week because I’ve been knee deep in editing ‘The Forgotten Road’, integrating some changes suggested by the agent who rejected me a week or so ago.  It takes me about a week to get through a typical edit now, and I chopped out about 3500 words on this pass, wrote a new prologue, and tied some themes into the story.  I don’t know if a story is ever done, but I feel as good about this story as I have at any point in the last year, so here’s hoping the next round of submissions meets with some type of success.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the last two weeks as well.  I worked through Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style’ and am about halfway through Christopher Vogler’s ‘The Writer’s Journey’.  Both should be required reading for writers.  S&W is not an easy read, nor would you ‘read’ it end to end more than once.  It’s a reference book, and it’s like reading the dictionary, but every lesson in there is worth learning.  I’ll probably pop it open to random pages once in a while and reinforce the lessons.
Vogler’s ‘Journey’ absolutely must be read by every fiction writer, and read early on in their career.  Actually, if you love movies, I highly recommend it as well.  It’s Hollywood’s Bible about characters and plots, and by the time you’re a hundred pages into it, you will be watching movies and reading books with a completely different eye.  For me, it helps to reinforce that I have done some things right, and missed out on a few other things.  It will definitely come into play in my next book, and should save me some time by eliminating a number of editing sessions.
I read two books by Jonathon Tropper in the last couple of weeks as well:  The Book of Joe, and How to Talk to a Widower.  I’d be lying if I said these weren’t a bit of chick-lit for guys.  Light and quick to read, with a good flow, they’re pretty good.  But I have a hard time believing they’re written by a guy.  But if you like Jasper Fforde (which I do), you’ll probably like these.
We actually got through a few movies this weekend as well:
North By Northwest – Classic Alfred Hitchcock movie with Cary Grant.  Great story, great dialog, and well worth the watch.  3.5 stars
Monsters vs Aliens – CGI Animated – not really for little kids, and honestly, the animated stuff has lost its wow factor for me (yes, I now take it for granted).  Maybe it was because I was sitting next to a 3 year old asking questions every 30 seconds, but I was glad it was only 96 minutes long. 1.5 stars
Yes Man – Jim Carrey – Not bad.  Very little gross out, mildly amusing.  Wow did I see the influence of “Writer’s Journey’ in this one.  Very formulaic.  2 stars
On a personal front, I’m proud to report that Lorelai has completed potty training, and is now diaper free 24 hours a day.
Reece is still working on it, much to our chagrin.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Birthdays and Fire Trucks

Both Lisa and the twins celebrated their birthdays in the last week.  We decided to do an outing for a birthday present instead of more toys, and got a tour of the local fire station.  It was a great time for all of us, and I learned a lot too.  I highly recommend it as a family outing.  Just call up your local fire station, and arrange a tour!

Here are some pictures of the parties and the station.

Lisa’s Birthday party was reserved affair

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Fireman Lewis had a couple of shy kids on his hands at the start.

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Lieutenant Babcock put on all his gear for the kids

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The shyness went away when Reece was allowed to drive the pumper truck.

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Lorelai likes being in the driver seat too

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Reece liked the ‘moving ladder truck’ the best

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A table of our own, with cousin Lily

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Time for cake!

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Videos later, I hope!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Handling Rejection

The last 72 hours has been a rollercoaster for my writing.  I have resumed sending out query letters for ‘The Forgotten Road’.  Writers who have been doing this a while, learn to set their expectations very low.  Sending out a query letter has the following possibilities:

  1. No Response.  If your query letter is crappy, this is probably what you’ll get.  Writing a good query letter is crucial.  It has to be perfect, and entire books have been written just on how to write a query letter.  You also have to know the targeted agent and what they are interested in reading.  Miss there, and you probably will never hear from them either.
  2. The ‘thanks but’ Response.  This is probably the most common, now that most agents, or at least the one’s I’m querying, work by email.  The ‘buts’ that I have encountered include things like not taking submissions right now or not a market we’re interested in.  The only thing you as a writer can do to avoid this response is to do better research.  But you will always get some of these responses, as no amount of research will tell you that just lat week that agent was slammed with 200 manuscripts, and they just aren’t accepting any more right now.
  3. The ‘We liked your work, but.’ response.  This is different from the ‘Thanks, but’ response.  This is definitely a step up from the ‘thanks, but’ response, because it means they got past your query letter and looked at your work, and there was something about your work that wasn’t quite right.
  4. The ‘We loved it.  When can we offer you a deal.’  I haven’t seen one of these yet, so I’m just guessing how it might look.

I got a #3 for the first time yesterday.  I sent out a query letter on Thursday evening, and received a reply back that they wanted to see my work.  They sent the note on Thursday, which either means they really liked the query, or they as fastidious about keeping their email in box clean.  Either is fine with me.  

On Friday night, I sent the first 50 pages to the agent, and they replied they would try to read it within the next two weeks.  Most agents say to allow 6-8 weeks for a response on submitted material. 

The response was in my inbox by 1:30 that afternoon.  It was a rejection, but they had read the entire fifty pages that morning.  That is pretty amazing, seeing as it was a Saturday.  An agent doesn’t work normal business hours, I guess.  I won’t post their feedback here, but the gist of it was that there is a lack of conflict, of foreshadowing, of ‘something happening’ in the first thirty pages.  However, they loved some of it, calling it ‘wonderful.’  They gave me a full paragraph of explanation of why they thought what they thought, and I agree with them.  So it’s back to the editing process, adding here, subtracting there.  I’ve got multiple ideas on what to do, but it’ll take me a few days to dig in an settle on a course of action.

For me, getting a rejection like this is inspiring.  It’s a step forward from the form rejection letters, and a confirmation from someone in the industry that tells me that I am close, that I have some talent.  I’ve heard that from friends and relatives before, but they don’t know the industry, and what it takes to sell.  So I won’t mind doing ‘1 more edit’ on a book I wanted to be ‘done done’, if it puts me that much closer to getting a #4. 

Friday, January 15, 2010

On Writing

This morning I finished re-reading Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing’.  Like I’ve said previously, I don’t reread books too often, but this one I read a couple of years ago (maybe it was just a year ago), and I remember getting a lot out of it then.  That was before I discovered that there was more to writing than just letting your fingers dump words onto the screen like a sinking supertanker dumps oil into the water.  I learned that you can’t be careless about your words in a story.  Every single one of them is important.  So I went back to this book because I was sure I would learn something new from it, and I was sure that I had misread or missed parts of it all together.

First, I had a direct recollection of Stephen King saying that a good sized book was 180,000 words, and a vague recollection that he also often wrote first drafts in the 380,000 word range.  I talked about this with people at the PNWA conference last July, and people thought I was misremembering.  I wasn’t.  King does say both things.  I blame Mr. King for making me feel like the first draft of the original ‘Nowhere Home’ was woefully insufficient at 139,000 words.  Little did I know it was almost twice as long as it should have been.

He also rails against laying out the plot of a book ahead of time.  The book is the book.  It will go where it goes.  Yes, to a point.  Writers with 50 publications to their credit can say that, and people will read it.  But for a new writer, writing without a plot can be deadly.  Not just for the book, but for the writer’s morale.  If a hundred pages into the first draft, you have no idea where it’s going, it’s crushing.  That said, I’ve written all three of my novels without a plot outline.  My next one I am outlining, because I want to write faster and better.  That’s not to say I won’t deviate from the plot if the story changes direction.  I actually hope to God it does.  But the outline is at least my fallback to keep me going when the ‘muse’ is taking a day off.

King also says he reads about 70 books a year.  That’s 1.35 books a week.  A very impressive number.  I would almost bet he didn’t read that much when he was working a full time job (or two).  I know I don’t have time to read that much, unless I am not writing.  However, it did point out to me that I still suckle from the ‘glass teat’  (television) far too much, and yes, there are bits and snippets of free time that I can use to get more reading done, or more writing, or more marketing for my work.

Those issues aside, I loved this book, and it is a must read for every writer.  In fact, anyone who likes Steven King at all should read the ‘CV’ and the ‘On Living’ sections.  The ‘On Living’ chapter brought tears to my eyes.  King puts you on the shoulder of that road in Maine after getting hit by the van in 1999, and you can’t help but to BE him while you are reading it.  After reading The Dark Tower Series earlier this year, the scenes are doubly powerful and interesting.

But the critical question I came out of the book with is ‘Why do I write.’   I would love to say I am as altruistic as King and I write because I can’t stop.  Sure, I have those moments.  But there are many other reasons.

I write in the hope that I may someday be able to do it for a living.  As a child I always wanted to be an astronaut.  That dream was given up sometime around 1994 when I squeaked through my last finals in college and realized I just didn’t have ‘The Right Stuff’.

Around the 5th or 6th grade, I realized that not only did I love to read, but I loved to write stories as well.  I plotted grand adventures inspired by Farley Mowat (Lost in the Barrens) and Robert Arthur, Jr (The Three Investigators)  and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan).  When I say inspired by, a lot of what I wrote was just pure copy, with my name instead of the original author.  Ruth Ann Jensen, my teacher in Grade 7, and the mother of a good friend of mine, really inspired me to start writing my own stories.  She’s also the one who, when trying to teach the class the meaning of ‘outspoken’, said:

“For example, Joe is outspoken.”  I looked at her slightly hurt, to which she replied.  “That’s not always a bad thing, Joe.”

But from the 7th grade on, writing was always my backup plan if the whole science thing didn’t work out.  In high school, when it came time to apply for colleges, I actually applied to a journalism school, but chose science instead.  Probably better for my pocketbook in the long run, and a better lifestyle for me, but there will always be part of me that wonders, what if I had gone the other way?

So writing is something I’ve always enjoyed.  It gives me power over the worlds I create and the ability to have adventures I will never have.  It allows me to escape from the mundane and to escape from a physical body that has been limited over the years by a progressive disease that will probably cripple me complete by the time I die.

Writing also allows me to feel productive.  I work hard at my job, but, by and large, the work I do is not Important, with a capital ‘I’.  It pays the bills (very well), and allows me to care for my family.  I don’t have any worries about not making next month’s mortgage, or putting food on the table.   I ride the train back and forth to work every day, and if I were to sit there day after day and do nothing but  read or do crosswords, I’d feel like both my life and my talents were going to waste.  Five years from now, most of the work I have done will be irrelevant.  No one will remember it, except that it has sustained the people who used it for that time.  There just won’t be anything of it left.  There are days where I go to work so I can ride the train and write.  If I ever become a full time writer, I sometimes worry that I’ll still have to get up at 5:00 AM and catch the train, because that’s the best place I’ve found to write since I was living in a crappy apartment in North York, Ontario while in college.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t want the fame and the money that goes with breaking out.  But that would be part of enabling me to write full time, and sometimes I fear that a rash of sudden celebrity would steal key years from my life with my kids, or destroy my desire to write.

But what writing really gives me, is a chance to leave a legacy.  A mark on the world, or to influence the reader in such a way that they feel better for having read my stuff.  I am supremely jealous of those who have done that in any art form.  I look at the Beatles, and the songs they created, and I wonder if they knew, way back when, what an effect ‘Eleanor Rigby’ would have fifty years later.  Did Beethoven know how long his Symphonies would be played? 

So I write so I can write more.  I write to make me feel like I am inspiring the next generation of adventures.  Hopefully someday, as mankind is setting out for a new planet, or a young boy (or girl) is deciding that they want to do something with their lives, that one of the stories I wrote somehow influences them for the better.  Hopefully, one of those kids is my kid, or my grandchildren, and they’ll have pleasant memories.

For now, I’ll just settle for people enjoying my stories and recommending them to friends.  Maybe someday, I’ll see some stranger reading my book on a train or an airplane, and I can smile to myself, open up my laptop, and be inspired to write the next page.

Book Review: Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell

I’m a big Bernard Cornwell fan.  I don’t think I’ve read every one of his books, but I’ve got at least one full shelf of his work, including the entire Richard Sharpe series, The Archer’s Tale Series, and the Uhtred the Viking Series.  All are great reads.  You know what you are getting with Cornwell’s stuff:  a manly-man hero in a historical setting, a small battle followed by a big battle, with one antagonist, usually, but not always, someone who is supposed to be on his side.  There’s always a woman as well, a love interest for the hero, put in danger because of the hero’s obligations.  The books are predictable in their characters.  But I -- and a great many other people -- love them not despite that, but because of that.

What having familiar (some might say cardboard) characters enables Cornwell to do is to focus on the story, which is the character we readers of this historical fiction most care about.  I love learning about eras of history of which I only had name recognition prior to reading a book.  In fact, some of my favorite parts of Cornwell’s books are the Historical Notes at the end of the books that let me know what was real, and what was literary license.

In Agincourt, Cornwell tells the story of three battles fought between the English and the French in the year 1415:  The Siege of Soissons,  The Siege of Harcourt  and the Battle of Agincourt.  The reader follows Thomas Hook, an English archer, through these battles, and through battles with people from his past.  The historical aspects of the story are wonderful, especially the second half of the book, with the focus on Agincourt.   Unfortunately, this time the cardboard characters are paper thin, the dialog forced, and the writing, well, a little bland and repetitive.   Not that it was repetitive from other books, but within this book I saw the same sentence repeated three times in different chapters. 

Perhaps I’ve been reading too much about good writing lately, and I start to notice things that should have been caught by an editor.  But this book just didn’t flow like the rest of Cornwell’s work, and the result was a little flat.  Definitely not his best work, but because Agincourt (the event) is such an important historical battle -- not for the military strategists, but for its place in historical context – I still recommend reading it.  If you are a first time Cornwell reader, don’t let it scar you into not reading more of his work.  If you’ve read him before, just go into this one with the knowledge that Agincourt (the battle) is fascinating and gruesome, while Agincourt (the book) is almost interesting, and a little gruesome.