Tuesday, December 14, 2010

This is just to say...

That I have eaten...no. Where was I? A red wheelbarrow? There are some great subjects that I've wanted to write brilliant, insightful posts about, but I just don't have the time or the will. Of course, if I had the will, I'd make the time. That was insightful. Anyway, given the choice of spending my few free hours writing blog posts or working on my book, I just have to choose the book. It's more fun.

And it's freakin' awesome!

Did I say that out loud? However, I've lined up an interview with another up-and-coming author. Look for it eventually, right here. Or up there. And thus concludes my self-righteous justification for not writing something better.

Friday, December 10, 2010

I give up! Charism it is. For now.

What's Charism? It's the original title of my work-in-progress. But what does it mean? It's a noun, meaning a God-given gift, basically.

Pretty harmless, right? It seemed like such a perfect title for the book—since there are too many books called "Gifted" already. Problem is, it means something more specific to the only people who actually use it. Just Google Charism and see what comes up. And my book has nothing to do with religious orders.

So why go back to it? Because I'm too stupid to think of a better one. Anyone remember The Qualia of Magic? Yeah, that was before I removed all instances of the word "magic" from the book and realized that one silly bit of advice I'd read was right:  don't use Latin words in your title. (Charism is Greek in origin—through Latin. Dang! I could call it Kharis, going all the way back to the Greek root word, which means "favor.")

At any rate, I can't for the life of me think of a title I like better. The Sense is misleading and that long one is cumbersome and I can't even remember it off the top of my head. Another one I kind of, sort of like is Gifted/Cursed. It's a little play on the common phrase gifted/talented, see? Yeah. No one does.

So Charism is a placeholder name, because that's what I originally named it, and that's how I think of it. If you have any brilliant ideas, please let me know.

In other news, I'm in a strange place right now. Let me explain...no, will take to long. Let me sum up. I no longer have any idea how Charism will be received by anyone. I've gotten so many different opinions that I've lost all sense of expectation about who will like or hate what about the book. I really like the book. I love it, in fact. Recent changes have really improved it, and as I work my way through each chapter, revising and adding a real live plot to it *rolls eyes*, I'm finally starting to feel satisfied by what I've written. I'm only two chapters into this revision, but when I'm done, I'll hand it to someone who's never read it before and nothing they say will surprise me. I've screwed up and fixed so many things that I'm way beyond thinking I've heard it all.

I now realize that I will never hear it all. Go on. Hit me with your best shot.

[Update:  I think I found a good title! In Memory. That's what I'm calling it, now.]

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Hunger Games and King David

The Hunger Games
The story goes that the prophet Nathan came to King David and told him about two men from the same city. One was rich, and the other poor. The poor man had little except a lamb he had raised. He shared his food with the lamb, slept with it at night. It was more, even, than just a pet. He loved it like a child.

One day, the rich man had a visitor for whom he wanted to prepare a feast. Instead of taking a lamb from his own large flock, he took the poor man's precious lamb, slaughtered it, cooked it, and fed it to his visitor.

King David was outraged by the tale and swore that the poor man's loss would be repaid fourfold—and that the rich man would die. Nathan told him, "Thou art the man."

Nathan didn't walk up to the king and berate him for taking another man's wife. He didn't accuse him of murder for sending that man to his death in battle. He told a story, got David ticked off at the antagonist, and then in four words turned it around so David couldn't deny his own guilt.

The Hunger Games is an excellent piece of storytelling. It's compelling, crisp, and I learned some things from it that I think will help my own writing. Collins spends a lot of time developing Katniss as a character, both through her past as well as her thoughts in the present. I know—I'm one of the last people to read this book, and I'm sure it's all been said before. Bear with me.

A couple things didn't sit well—but they were just nit-picky little things. There was one big thing that really, really bugged me, and I can sum it up in one word that describes the entire book: horrific. From the premise to the last death, the characters are put through an ordeal that's just about the worst thing imaginable. To make it even more terrible, there's a live TV audience watching the entire thing, rapt. 

I'm not against dark themes and terrible events in books or movies. But in The Mission, no one wins. Heart of Darkness leaves you feeling dark. 1984 gives no cause whatsoever to stand up and cheer. The Hunger Games is like Lord of the Flies made gloriously entertaining.

And that's the problem. But it's my problem.

I will never forget the moment it hit me that it wasn't just a fictional TV audience getting pleasure from watching kids suffer and die—it was me. Katniss could have turned to me and said, "Thou art the audience," and it wouldn't have hit any harder.

Oh, sure, Katniss and all the other tributes aren't even slightly real. They're the products of Collins's imagination, the result of a late night in front of the TV.

But you know what? Non-fiction outsells fiction. I've read true stories about people dying, freezing to death on Mt. Everest, for example. Why did I read them if not for fun?

Death is not now and never has been entertaining when you're actually there. Does seeing a fireworks stand crush a man leave you with anything but a sick feeling? Does seeing a man break his back and die feel any more heroic because he managed to spare other people? No! In my experience, death is infallibly gut-wrenching.

Capturing a death in pictures, sounds, or words strips it of qualia, the intangible things that make it real. It allows us to experience something terrible without the pain, allows us to find pleasure in the excitement of a moment that should only make us sick. Couched in a good story, safely ensconced behind a pane of glowing glass, there's nothing so awful it can't be made entertaining. (I suspected that's exactly what Collins had in mind and found it confirmed in this interview.)

I've never watched reality TV. But can I be entertained by the horrific? Thanks to The Hunger Games, I now see the answer is yes. The whole "gladiator games are bad" theme has been done a million times. (Star Trek did it at least half a dozen times.) Only now will I think twice about every death that I watch, read, and write, and ask myself why.

My only concern is that a whole lot of people will read the book, watch the inevitable movie, and completely miss the forest for the trees. What do you think? How did you feel after reading The Hunger Games?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gifted/Cursed: Poem for Aspiring Writers

Hmm, how's that for a title? Seriously, sometimes they're one and the same. It's so hard to tell a good story, but I can't help but try.

Fall in love with people
no one else knows
Cry about tragedies
no one else sees
It's a dream
a world in your throat
that you can't quite speak
Feelings real as anything
about phantoms
hallucinations in the night
It's only a story
Write it down
with just enough skill
to make you think you can
Just enough love
to keep trying
and nothing more
Try
And again
Because you must
It's your gift

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Finished!

Excuse me while I laugh.



Okay, I'm back. So, three months ago—wait, let me check—holy cow, it was exactly three months ago! I'm a man of my word! Anyway, back on August 12th, I announced I was virtually chucking my novel in the trash and rewriting the whole thing. I said "Give me three months from tomorrow." Well, I wrote the last sentence of that rewritten book on Saturday, November 13th.

Finished?

No!

Not by a long shot. Well, it's a whole lot closer than it was before, but now I've essentially got another rough draft on my hands. I've gotta go through it again and tweak the emotional responses and speech of characters, work on setting (which I frequently forget about), get rid of repetition and redundancy (get it?), and pay a lot of attention to verb choice. And delete commas. They always creep in where they're not wanted.

So what did I do with that three-month-long rewrite, aside from have a lot of fun? I got the story right. Everything makes sense. The characters come alive. It's twenty-thousand words shorter! I've finally—finally!—got a good framework to start making pretty.

A year ago, if I'd known I'd have to rewrite every single sentence of the whole book, I'm not sure I ever would have started. But here I am. If I thought I'd have to do it again, I'd probably give up right now. But I don't. (The hardest things only get done by people ignorant of what they're really in for.) Soooo...

Here I go!

Again!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Infidelity

Do you ever cheat on a book? You know what I mean, and it could be either a book you're reading or one you're writing. I'll confess that sometimes, if a book I'm reading doesn't quite intrigue me all the way through, I'll see a prettier one sitting on the shelf just waiting for some attention, and I'll pick it up without finishing the first. Usually, that's it for my relationship with the first book. If you go back to it, where do you start? You can't really start over, knowing that it didn't work out last time. You can't really pick it back up where you left off once you've lost your connection with that world. I guess if you wait enough years, you forget everything and can start back up like strangers. That's what I did with The Hobbit. I tried reading it in elementary or middle school, but it was just too—something. Wordy? Obtuse? Over my head? I read it a few years later and loved it.

I cheated on Stranger in a Strange Land, and I haven't gone back to it. It's been two years, and I was less than a quarter of the way through. Kind of makes me sad, because I was so excited to read it. I mean, I bought it for crying out loud. It's still on the shelf.

Robinson Crusoe? Tried it as a kid, and it wasn't at all what I expected. (I mean, who'd have thought it was, like, two hundred years old?) Never read it.

I don't know if cheating on a book you're actually writing is worse, but it's probably easier. That kind of relationship is easier to come back to. You've got more invested. I had a brief dalliance last month with a new book idea. I never actually started writing, or even outlining, but I sure thought about the new book a lot. It's an exotic, very original idea, with great characters.

It didn't last long, though. I returned to my current project, and the closer I got to the end, the more I fell in love with it all over again. Maybe it helps that it's changed so much during this rewrite. We're very happy together right now, and I hope that romance lasts a little longer. Then, once our relationship is complete, I can move wholeheartedly onto the next one.

Well, not exactly. For awhile there, I'll have to practice bigamy. Whew. Took that metaphor a little too far, eh?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Car Crash

Ever wondered what it's like to crash into a freeway overpass at high speed in a convertible? What would it be like? Would you survive and with what sort of injuries? What's in those yellow barrels, anyway?

I wondered. Yeah, it's weird, but I have my reasons. I'm sure you can guess what they are.

The yellow barrels you see in front of overpass supports and barriers, especially on the freeway, are impact attenuators. More specifically, they're called Fitch barriers, named for John Fitch, who invented them. There are other types of impact attenuator, but Fitch barriers are the simplest and probably the most effective.

Each barrel in the line is filled with a progressively greater amount of sand or water. When a car hits the line of barrels, the sand/water is scattered in all directions, taking with it some of the car's momentum. Each barrel slows the car down a little more, as the amount of energy absorbed (and speed reduction) increases with the mass of sand/water in the barrel.

A car that hits a Fitch barrier at highway speeds is decelerated over nine or ten meters (or more) instead of the one or two that the front of the car would smash in if it hit a concrete pillar directly. This is a lot faster than a car could stop on its own, but a whole lot better than a direct impact. Some of the tests I looked at had the occupants experiencing less than 10 g, and 15 g at most. Easily survivable.

Vehicles can be flipped around by the impact. (Video of test) In a convertible, you'd end up covered in sand. It's also conceivable that a car could roll after hitting a Fitch barrier, but much more likely in high center-of-gravity trucks and SUVs.

The impact at the front of the car is more than enough to set off the airbags and will smash the front in pretty good.

Now, if the car is moving well over 100 mph, is a small convertible, and the occupant isn't wearing a seatbelt, it's possible they'd survive—maybe even likely. But at that speed, rollover risk is greatly increased, as the car could be deflected by the barrier and slide sideways at a fairly high speed. It's also possible that the car could nose down enough that you'd slide over the top of the airbag, but probably not very likely. Sports cars tend to keep your legs way out in front of your torso.

So, I didn't find a definitive answer. It seems like a rollover would be the most likely cause of fatality. That's a matter of luck. At any rate, I wouldn't try it at home.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Prayer of the Gifted

For the treasure of potential
For the night we know will come
Blessed and gifted
Cursed and scorned
Lead us far away from home

Let our power tame our passion
Hold its fire, quell its pain
Send a hero
Send us someone
With a calming gentle rain

May desire die like morning
May its flame no longer burn
Good around us
Be inside us
May our human evils learn

May the blessings we are cursed with
Never make our loved ones cry
Blessed and gifted
Shall we thank thee?
Let us ask thee only—Why?


(Does anyone understand what I'm saying?)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Polishing

I recently downloaded The Rescues' first album, Crazy Ever After. I got one of their songs a few months ago, and it was good enough that I decided to see what else they'd done. That song, Break Me Out, is probably the most perfect rock song I've ever heard. I wasn't paying attention when I downloaded the album, however, and now I have three different versions of Break Me Out—the single released through iTunes plus two more from the first album.

The funny thing is that as perfect as the iTunes single is, it took them three tries to get it like that. And that's just counting released versions.

Version one is rather restrained. Break Me Out 2.0 (that's what it's called) hits you with a wall of sound on the first time through the chorus and tries out some different licks in the middle. The final version, which is on their new album, has different mixing for a cleaner sound, a faster tempo, and drives harder. But what makes it stand-out amazing is its story arc.

A lot of songs start out small and add instruments and volume up to a climax of sorts. Most of them don't do it right, though. The chorus is frequently the same, so you get an up-down-up-down feel. A lot of songs use a wall of sound to add impact, but often that's all it is.

Break Me Out 3 starts stronger than the others, with a brighter keyboard line with percussion behind it. It doesn't dump a cacophony on you like 2.0, but incrementally ratchets up the tension, then hits you with a brief payoff right after the chorus and before verse two. The second verse is even stronger, followed by a spell where the instruments almost vanish. The net effect is to add tension, because by that time you have some idea of what's coming. When that big payoff finally comes, the timing is spot-on perfect even though it's not where you'd expect it to be. It's an awesome payoff precisely because of that. Finally, it doesn't fade out on the end like the other versions—it winds down and stops at the end of a measure.

Listen to it courtesy of Rhapsody, if you like:
Break Me Out (new album)
(The others are on eMusic, but I think you need an account. I signed up for a free trial.)

Now, if you're a writer, go back and read this post while imagining that I'm talking about a story instead of a song. Remember that they probably had a fresh set of ears to help with the final production. And realize that good is one thing, and great isn't a whole lot different than good—but it makes all the difference.

I'm off to do some polishing.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Creating People

And now I reveal the working title of my next project, right after I say a few other things. I guess that makes it not really "now" so much as "pretty soon." Either way, I haven't really started working on that project except to think about it in spare moments.

First came the premise, which started out as "unmanned" ground vehicles that are in reality driven by invisible people. It didn't take long to alter it to unseen people instead of invisible. I'd create a class of people willing to risk their lives and in all likelihood die for large sums of money on missions no human should be sent to complete. And no human would, except that these people are hidden inside these supposedly unmanned battle vehicles. There are a lot of details to work out, like how do they see, how do they get in without getting caught, who owns the vehicles, who sends them on missions, what sort of remote control and monitoring do they have? Those are fun problems to sort out, and I'll save the details for the book.

Now, I need characters. But how do I go about creating people to plunk down in this situation? Two of them I'm fairly sure where to start. They're young, college-aged, and suicidal. A boy and a girl from different backgrounds and places. They're the insiders, the invisible people, and two of a few dozen recruits. They'll risk everything for the off chance (maybe one in three?) that they'll live to collect their paycheck. If they die, oh well. They wanted to die anyway, and now they have something to leave behind; the money goes to their families, or whatever they specify. (Under the guise of life insurance, perhaps?)

There's a possible third protagonist, a man about my age or a little older. I thought about making him just like me—a tech writer at a small robotics company, or maybe an engineer. The problem is, I would never do what I need him to do. I'm the kind of person who leaves well enough alone, but I need this character to start digging, to find out what's going on under the hood, to contact the two inside characters. (Also, it's never a good idea not to base characters so blatantly on yourself.)

I'm thinking he's got to be either a newspaper reporter, or the former head of a small robotics company that went bust after losing a contract to a competitor. (The Bad Guys. See below.) The motivations will be different, depending on which I choose. The failed inventor would be in it for revenge, to find out how The Bad Guys managed to leapfrog so far ahead, and expose them. The reporter would be doing his job, uncovering a sinister conspiracy and trying to win a Pulitzer or something. If I go with the reporter, the other guy would be a minor character.

The Bad Guys will be a large corporation with vast resources, possibly a defense contractor, and not based on any specific company. Only an organization with clout and credibility could pull off something like this. They could buy up expertise and intellectual property rights and smaller companies as needed. They could win mercenary contracts that smaller companies never could. They could hire hit men—I'm getting carried away. Anyway, the Bad Guys will be this company, and it will need faces—managers, PR, guards, trainers, techs. I think I'll make up one main Bad Guy, though I don't know which role he'll be in.

And now for the title! I thought of calling it Drivers or something like that. Just a couple days ago, I realized a better title was staring me right in the face: Unmanned. I haven't checked for books of that name, but there aren't many novels about UGVs. I feel uniquely qualified to write one.

How do (or would) you create new people?

[update: I'm calling it Drivers instead of Unmanned. It's about the drivers, not the unmanned vehicles. Duh. *slaps forehead*]

Unmanned! (For Real)

Here's the latest video I've cobbled together at work. (Including the music, if you can call it that.) The vehicle is driving really slow, but the supervised autonomy interface is the real star. It takes a 3D scan of the area, decides where it can and can't drive, and overlays what the vehicle senses and plans to do on top of the live video stream. The Velodyne laser sensor also lets it do untethered following of a vehicle, person, or anything highly reflective. (Oooh, shiny. Robot like shiny, follow shiny thing anywhere.)

*ahem*

Anyway, the red in the display are the areas the robot has decided it should NOT drive. The yellow line is where it intends to drive. The video display is pretty cool, because it gives you a nearly complete spherical view around the vehicle. The drivers in my next book will need something like that, and a sensor overlay could also be helpful to guide them to targets.

Oh, and apologies for how manic the video is. The raw footage was really boring.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Little Guys Never Win or Curse You Google!

One of Google's cars, from a Times article
So, I'm feeling slightly dismayed right now. I just read that Google's been working on autonomous cars. A couple things about that:

1)  They've been driving them in traffic on public roads. That's illegal under current law, even if you've "briefed local police" about your work. Sure, they have people behind the wheel, ready to take over when the cars screw up—and they do. No matter how awesome your database and software, the cars are still half-blind. (They use basically the same sensors we do at Autonomous Solutions, so I know how great the data is.)

Wouldn't it be nice to have the weight of Google behind you when you want to try something like that? We couldn't even get insurance to drive our automated five-ton manually on public roads because the insurers were too skittish. I wonder who's insuring Google's unmanned vehicles, and if they have any idea what to charge.

2)  Wouldn't it be nice to have virtually unlimited financial resources? I'm just feeling sorry for myself. ASI has operated without external financing for its entire ten years. The only money we have to work on research and development is what's left over from actually selling robotic vehicles and services. Maybe it's not the best way to operate, but I'm not the boss. I'm a little jealous that Google's team can afford to pay fifteen engineers plus support staff and buy cars and Velodynes (which cost more than cars) without having to worry about making a penny of profit.

ASI's dev vehicle doing some unmanned following.
Yeah, and our DARPA Urban Challenge team consisted of 2.5 engineers, and we still did pretty well. *sigh* Wouldn't it be nice to have money? The little guys never win in real life.

Which brings up NON-real life, which means the book I'm going to write next! See, the news about Google has given me a flash of inspiration about my bad guys. *rubs hands and giggles gleefully* No, I'm not going to write a thinly-veiled demonization of a business rival! I mean, it's still pretty cool what Google's doing, right? It doesn't make them evil—right? (I'm suddenly aware that Google owns Blogger.)

More later! Stay tuned! It's gonna be good.

Mwah ha ha ha ha!

Friday, October 8, 2010

I Hate Waiting

Yeah, so I just wrote a post about how I love waiting. No reason I can't hate it, too. See, while it's nice to have something to look forward too, it's nicer to know what's coming. Also, there are certain things that are better had than waited for. Actually, probably lots of things.

What I'm thinking of is something that I want very badly, but is very difficult to make happen. When and how it happens depends largely on me, and maybe that's the worst part. When I'm waiting for someone else, I don't feel any pressure, only anticipation. When I'm waiting for myself—well, it's harder to be patient.

What's worse is that I don't like to be rushed. It's a vicious circle.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Ballad of You and Me?

The free single of the week on iTunes is The Ballad of You and I. I really like it. Why? Because there are so many songs about attraction, lust, falling in love, and breaking up, and it's really nice to hear a song about STAYING in love. If I were to count the days of my life spent falling in or out of love and compare them to the years I've spent just BEING in love, the ratio would be miniscule. And I'm still young.

Sure, emotional turmoil is fun once in awhile—that's why we have kids. The greatest satisfaction in my life comes from sharing it with someone I love deeply. This song comes closer to capturing that feeling than any other I've heard recently.

And as for the title, it might not be technically correct right now, but it probably will be someday. People are getting into the habit of saying "you and I." If it keeps them from saying "me and you did something," it's well worth it. "The Ballad of I" is much less odious than "me did something."

Anyway, what thinkest thou, about grammar or otherwise?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I Love Waiting

You know what I've realized? I love waiting. Funny, isn't it? I always thought I hated it. I submitted my first novel to Tor's slushpile last year. I didn't expect much to come of it—it took me ten years to finish the first draft, and I was just learning how to really write a novel. I finished a few revisions, just enough that I wouldn't be embarrassed by the book, (even though I am now,) and I sent it off so I could start working on my next book.

I guess over the course of a few months, however long it took them to respond, I got used to waiting. (The response came right when they said it would, to Tor's credit.) After getting the rejection, I felt kind of bad not having something to look forward to in the mail. I also entered a writing competition that gave me something else to wait for. I queried a few agents about my second book, and had a great time checking my email every day as the rejections trickled in.

I'm in the middle of a major revision, based partly on feedback I got from Gretchen Stelter. Waiting to hear back from her was also lots of fun. I read her reply breathlessly. I've gotten advice from two agents on my query and first page. One got back to me in a few days. The other took long enough that I wondered if she'd gotten my email. Waiting gave me something to look for in my email inbox, and a surge of excitement when the expected replies came. (Feedback is a lot more fun to open than plain rejections.)

Does it sound like I'm being sarcastic? Sure, it might be disappointing to check your mail and not get replies, but I think the rewards of waiting are a little like the random rewards of gambling. You overlook all the little disappointments for that one moment of excitement. I also think it's nice to have something to look forward to. That's an important part of life—as is hope. When you've got queries or contest entries out there, you've got something to hope for.

I'm looking forward to finishing up my latest revisions so I can start querying seriously. Waiting on other people seems to be easier than waiting for myself. How do you feel about waiting for news?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Automated Parking

Okay, so I haven't seen the Jetsons in about twenty years. (Note to self: check Hulu and Netflix.) So I'm just going on ancient, dusty memories here, but it seems that modern life is lacking in a few amenities we were promised as kids by the glowing box.

Yeah, we've got Roombas (and Scoobas and whatever they call those gutter-cleaning bots.) There's the Robomow and Automower lines of aimlessly wandering mowers. Honda and other Japanese companies have some pretty cool androids, but who can afford one?

Robots aside, where are the flying cars with big glass bubbles? (Edit: Here they are!) Where's the crazy architecture?

I'm thinking about this because I spent the day working with an automated parking system. Boomerang makes the hardware, and ASI has been doing the controls for their flat car-lifting AGV (or robot for short). My job is to drive it around and make sure everything works. I haven't crashed it, yet. (I heard they drove one into a pit when it had a car on it. Just a rumor.)

It's really pretty cool. The actual dispatch control software isn't integrated yet, so I'm stuck generating scripts with a barely usable interface thrown together for testing. (Drive forward 20000 units at speed 6, rotate clockwise, etc.) The idea is you drive into the bay and the flat robot picks up the tray and hauls your car away to park it. Since the robot can move sideways (and in any other direction), it can pack the cars much tighter than possible when driving them. Also, no one needs to open the doors. You don't have to walk through a parking terrace with no sidewalks, and many more cars can be parked.

Oh, and the valet won't drive your car around with a completely flat tire. (Happened to me once.)

When you're done, you scan your ticket or have your retina scanned or something, and then you sit down and wait a couple minutes for a friendly robot to bring your car back—facing the other direction and ready to be driven away.

It's expensive though, so don't expect to see one anytime soon unless you live in a place where there are many more cars than parking places. (I know, everyone thinks they live in a place like that.)

Isn't that so cool, though? Warehouses have been automated like that for decades. ASI redid the electronics for HK Systems' pallet hauler years ago. It's about time the cool stuff filters down to consumers, right?

p.s. What would you do if you had access to a big, flat, car-lifting robot?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Harris Burdick

In my interview with myself, I made reference to Harris Burdick as one of my favorite authors. He's the mysterious author/illustrator in the book by Chris Van Allsburg, who as the story goes, gave a stack of illustrations with captions and titles to a publisher, along with a promise to provide the complete stories if the publisher was interested. The publisher was indeed interested, but could never again locate Harris Burdick.


The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is simply a reproduction of those illustrations, each for a different story, and each with a compelling caption and title. The idea is that you supply the story yourself.

It's an awesome concept, and Van Allsburg's, excuse me, Burdick's drawings are wonderful, of course. My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Allen, introduced my class to them by forcing us to write some of the missing stories. I don't know what everyone else thought of the idea; I was too enthralled to notice. Never had I had so much fun doing schoolwork. My renditions always came out disturbing and dark with happy endings—or so it seemed to me at the time. I was ten years old. I fell in love with writing.

My parents bought me my own copy of the book. I wrote a few more stories, but either because typing was so arduous at the time or due to my short attention span, there are still stories that I haven't written. The worst part is that I don't know what happened to my copy of the book. I think one of my sisters may have borrowed it to use in their own classroom, or possibly my Dad. (There are a lot of teachers in my family.) Hmm?

Anyway, now I have a daughter who loves writing stories. I know she'd love the book. Not surprisingly, it's not available through paperbackswap.org, so I'll have to shell out for a new copy if I can't find mine. I want to give her what Mr. Allen and the mysterious Harris Burdick gave me so many years ago.

(Man, I'm tearing up just thinking about it. *sniff*)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Count the Ways

...to disappear. It's a song. Go get it while it's free at iTunes. Then go ride your bike at night. (With lights of course.)

Then come back and tell me if you love it as much as I do. Yes, that's an order, ensign!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Chocolate Review

I've had a run of good luck with winning contests and drawings on blogs lately. (I need to find someone giving away a publishing contract on a blog before my streak runs out.) The latest one was the first to give out an actual physical prize, and it's still going on if you want to enter. It's a blog tour promoting The Stone Traveler by Kathi Oram Peterson. This is the weekly prize. The grand prize is even better.

The book is LDS YA fiction, so the nominal audience is pretty narrow. I haven't read the book yet, so I'm going to review the prize—because I've never done a review of any kind before, and everyone else is doing them, so they must be cool. Right?

First, there's a cute toy jaguar and a necklace with a huge faux gemstone. They're quite nice. I don't wear jewelry or collect stuffed animals, but they were best part. Why? My seven-year-old daughter gasped when I gave her the stone necklace. I gave the jaguar to my four-year-old girl and she said "Daddy's the nicest dad in the world." Thanks for making me look good, Kathi!

The rest of the prize is chocolate, and I have opinions on chocolate. First, I love dark chocolate, and what I got was all dark, from Ghirardelli and Lindt.

The Ghirardelli Intense Dark "Twilight Delight" (what a name, eh?) is 72% cacao, which is fairly dark. I've had 90% recently, so I'm well used to this kind of chocolate. The taste is quite nice, and not too sweet, as Hershey's always is. The texture was the only thing that bothered me. It's kind of hard and dry, and doesn't melt very quickly. It's a bag of individually wrapped squares, so I put them in my pocket for a few minutes before eating them just to get them kind of melty. Whatever you do, don't just pop them into your mouth cold and start chewing. It's not nearly so pleasant. And don't drink anything cold right before eating. But it's good chocolate, if a bit harsh in texture.

I should disclose that I'm a Lindt fanatic. A few years ago my wife couldn't eat any dairy at all because she was nursing our daughter who was intolerant of soy and milk protein. The only chocolate we could find without any milk or soy ingredients was Lindt's Swiss Bittersweet. Most chocolates (including the Ghirardelli above) use soy lecithin as an emulsifier. That was all the chocolate we ate for well over a year, and we were hooked. Hershey's chocolate tastes like garbage, now. I've had other kinds of European chocolates, including some that aren't sold here, and never tasted anything I like better than Lindt.

Anyway, I was excited to try Lindt's Excellence Dark with Chili. We once got a Chili and Cherry bar from my sister-in-law who lived near the Lindt factory in New Hampshire, and it was very interesting and quite good. But it had a fruit filling, and I prefer chocolate without bits of other stuff in it. The Chili bar tastes at first like a normal (for Lindt) 50% chocolate. It's amazing how smooth the texture is. There's no trace of pepper taste that I could detect. It's just a great chocolate that makes your mouth burn. And it burns, too. It's easily comparable to a medium salsa.

I happen to like spicy food, and I love this chocolate. I wish our grocery store carried it. I've seen it at Borders, but nowhere else locally. We've been mixing mint with chocolate for years, and everyone seems to like that. Chili and chocolate isn't a new idea either. It was how the ancient people of South America fixed their chocolate drinks (if memory serves) and that's why it's included in the prize. I think it's as natural a combination as mint-chocolate, with a burning kick instead of a cool one.

If anyone can pull off something like this, it would be Lindt and Sprungli. I noticed that this bar was made in New Hampshire instead of Europe. I know the truffles have been made there for awhile, but it seems like all the bars used to be imported from various countries in Europe. At any rate, they've quickly built a reputation for making great dark chocolate. I sometimes wonder if Lindt isn't responsible for starting the fine dark chocolate bandwagon rolling in America.

Maybe next I'll compare Tim Tams to Keebler's rubbish. Oh wait, I guess I just did.

Thanks again, Kathi! Go visit her blog or website, and be sure to look into the tour for reviews of The Stone Traveler and a chance to win a fantastic prize.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Author Interview: Myself

I've got a special treat for my 12—No! 13! followers: an exclusive interview with an up-and-coming new author. Ben Spendlove (let's call him BS for short) is hard at work on a life-changing new book, but was kind enough to set aside a few minutes to answer our questions.

Imaginary Friends blog (IF):  When did you start writing?

BS:  When I was born. I just saved it all up in my infantile brain until I could actually hold a pencil and learned how to form letters round about kindergarten. Most of what I wrote mentally in those early days is only just coming out,  and that's why my writing is so fresh and original. Much of it doesn't even include actual words, so it looks like white space. But it's very meaningful white space.

IF:  What was your favorite book as a child?

BS:



IF:  Very deep. What's your writing process like?

BS:  It's exactly like eating pancakes with maple syrup. If you understand that, then you understand how I write. My process is also a lot like writing a book, but the pancake analogy is closer, I think.

IF:  Who are some of your favorite writers?

BS:  I'm a big fan of fictional authors who haven't actually written anything. Harris Burdick was an early influence. Though I hate to admit it, Anne Shirley might have played a role, too. More recently there's been Alex Rover and Karen Eiffel, whom I especially love because everyone should know the joy of killing off a really good character.

IF:  Dare I ask what your favorite books are?

BS:  The imaginary ones written by my favorite writers, of course.

IF:  Is this a manifestation of your jealousy for real authors who've actually been published?

BS:  This is how I answer that question:




IF:  I see. Where did the idea for your current project originate?

BS:  To borrow a line from a master, it came from "the Icy BLACKness of SPACE!" Ha ha! Seriously, it was more like a parasite that wormed its way into my brain, disrupting neural function in specific areas and forcing me to behave in strange and inhuman ways.

IF:  How does that relate to eating pancakes with maple syrup?

BS:  Clearly you've never eaten pancakes with maple syrup.

IF:  Have you ever eaten a stack of TEN pancakes with maple syrup?

BS:  Why, yes. Yes, I have. Thanks for asking.

IF:  That's amazing. What's the greatest thing about being a writer?

BS:  Interviewing myself on my own blog has been the greatest thing yet. I doubt I'll ever meet a more skillful, insightful, and understanding interviewer.

IF:  Thank you.

BS:  No, thank YOU.

IF:  Spendlove is an interesting name. Were your ancestors prostitutes or something?

BS:  I take back what I said about you. Jerk.

Thanks to Ben Spendlove for his enlightening answers. I'm certainly going to buy multiple copies of his book when it's finally published.

Are you an author? Would you like this blog to interview you? Email us at the address above and to the right! It's a free service we provide. Just started. (We're trying to land an interview with Harris Burdick, but he's still missing.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Where I Work


I put this together from dozens of old DV tapes at work. Autonomous Solutions, Inc. started in 2000, and I joined in 2004. It's about the best tech writing job I can imagine, which is why I'm still here. Robots=cool. I'd make a blooper reel of all the times vehicles didn't do what we expected, but there's never a camera around when that happens and frankly, it doesn't happen very often.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Shameful Books

There's was a piece on NPR's All Things Considered in which a writer was telling about a book he was ashamed to love (Kurt Cobain's journals). It sounded like part of a series, but I haven't heard any others since.

Anyway, it got me thinking, and I couldn't think of a single book that I'm ashamed to love. The reason is simple, I think:  if I love it, I really think it's good and am therefore not ashamed to love it. It doesn't matter who it was written for, written by, or how it was written. If I like it, it's good. If it's not good, I don't like it.

In other words, I define what's worthy by what I like, not by the expectations or opinions of other people. At least, that's how I am with books. Same goes for not liking something. I recently tried to read The Catcher in the Rye. I say 'tried' because I couldn't finish it. Aside from the incessant profanity and annoying way the narrator rambles on and repeats himself, I just couldn't get into the story. I'm sure some people can relate and a lot of people really like that book, but I couldn't stand it. Therefore, it's not that good, and I'm not ashamed to say so.

Music, on the other hand—I'm ashamed of about half of what's in my iTunes library. So don't ask.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Wasted Writing

Sat down, or rather sat up to write this morning. Got over 1000 words written by seven. Have to redo it all. Why? Well, I got really into describing what happened to the character a week earlier. It was pretty compelling. The poor guy went through a lot, and then I put him through another shocking realization right there in the scene I was writing. THEN when I finally got done with all that, I was ready to start on what I had intended the chapter to be about aaaaand I couldn't write anymore.

Hit the wall. Train of thought crashed. Got that feeling where I knew I was on the wrong track and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't finish the chapter except by summarizing what I intended to write.

My wife read what I'd spewed out, and agreed with me. She said the premise was fine, but the content was all wrong.

But y'know? I really know that character a lot better now. I've got a backstory for him in my head, one that doesn't really need to be told because a similar thing already happened to a more central character. It's nice for me to know what it was like for him, though.

I'll try that chapter again tonight or tomorrow, and I'll start in the same place, but with a fuller character who I'm not afraid to plunk down in the middle of something crazy. Cause I know where he's been, which means that he knows, which means he's not afraid to have some fun!

No writing is wasted.

Friday, August 27, 2010

I Should Be Born

Like I've said before, I really love the confluence of music and words. There's a song I recently discovered by a band called Jets Overhead that's just plain addictive, and I want to share the earworm joy. First, let me set the scene that I've been seeing in my head.

In a sprawling abandoned factory complex, a group of people have gathered in the one building with electricity. It's dusk. An orange glow lines the skyline to the west, over a broad brown river. The factory site goes right up to the water, where a concrete dock juts out into the slow current. Behind the occupied building, a single mercury vapor floodlight casts a cold light into the deepening darkness. A person leaves the building, looking for two others who hide in the darkness.

<a href="http://jetsoverhead.bandcamp.com/album/no-nations">I Should Be Born by Jets Overhead</a>

The last verse especially reminds me of Leah and what she faces in that scene, which is the climax of the story.

If you struggle in logic and feeling
Generational gaps are revealing
Don't lose sight of the ones who have loved you
You're only as strong as the love that built you

If you go here you can download the title track of Jets Overhead's last album for free.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Redefinition

I started this blog with the idea that I'd post pieces of writing that weren't good enough to leave in a finished, publishable work—the proverbial darlings that writers kill. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It doesn't anymore.

For one thing, I'm not sure I want y'all reading bad writing when I know its bad and have already surpassed and/or replaced it with something better. Kind of makes me look worse than I actually am. It's embarrassing.

For another thing, I'd rather just write about what's on my mind. That's what I've actually been doing lately. I want to write about cool things that I discover while researching and thinking about my current and future projects.

For example, I've been reading about witchcraft trials in the early 1300s and the great famine of 1315-16, and I'm wondering about how certain nobility who died in that year actually perished. I've been looking into epi-genetics, parasites, gene modification, and getting in way over my head. I just filmed a demo of a system that gives an immersive view of everything around an unmanned vehicle and includes 3D overlaid information about what the vehicle senses and where it plans to go. (I have a pretty cool day job.) I've been listening to a song by Jets Overhead over and over because it reminds me of The Sense and my own situation. I just got a chapter critique from five people who had five very different takes, and I don't know whose to listen to.

That's at least nine blog posts right there, and they're more interesting to me than writing I've tossed. Maybe I'm just less sentimental. Maybe I'm just more comfortable with throwing pieces away forever, confident that what's coming is only going to get better.

In the end, I hope what I post is also interesting to you. All ten of you. My focus will still be on writing. The topics may seem completely random, but they're all related. See if you can figure out how.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Throwing It All Away

I have a 98,000 word novel that took me a year to write: three months for the first draft plus nine months of revision. It's all about to become one of those proverbial darlings that I must kill. Only a handful of people have read it, and no one else ever will.

Say your goodbyes! I'm holding the delete key to its head right now! Here it goes—BANG! It's dead!

All that work, early mornings, late nights, hours pondering and agonizing and wracking my brains while staring at a blank screen—gone in the blink of an eye. Alas, poor book. I knew it well, Horatio. *sob*

Whoa, I'll stop there. Honestly, I'm just trying to make myself feel sorry for myself. Starting an entire book over from the beginning seems like it ought to be a difficult thing to do. It should feel arduous, sacrificial or something besides exciting.

But I'm just excited. I've got a book that still has a lot of things wrong with it, and I'm realizing new things all the time. This a chance to fix everything! Because this book deserves it. When I'm done with this draft (plus probably a couple more passes to fix new problems I may introduce) I'll have a shining gem worthy of the characters I've come to know so well. A couple months ago I wrote that I couldn't quite see my characters faces, and couldn't hold a conversation with them. Now I can do both.

And really, hardly a single hour of the time I've spent writing is wasted. I've been learning how to write, and I can say with sincere Edisonian optimism that I've found a dozen ways not to tell this story. I'm really pumped. This is the draft where the characters come alive on the page the way they have in my mind. This is the draft where the story makes perfect sense and flows inevitably to a better ending. This is the draft that I'll be able to hand to anyone in the world and say without reservation, "I wrote this."

Give me three months from tomorrow.

Oh, and brain-wracking has been minimal.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Radio Lab says I'm a genius.

So it must be true. If you want to hear it for yourself, listen to this. You may be a genius, too. If you don't have the time or inclination to listen to the show, or you've just listened to it and missed the part where they said, "This conclusively proves that Ben is a genius," I'll explain myself.

It's an interview with Malcolm Gladwell. His theory about genius is that it isn't so much a result of innate ability as a love of what one is doing.

Let's pause and let that sink in.

The more I've thought about that over the past week, the more I've come to believe that he's right. He cites a couple of examples for his theory, but most of my thinking about this has been more personal. I can relate to what he says about love. I love writing. I looove writing. When I'm not writing, I'm usually thinking about it. When I have setbacks, like my critique group says I've gotten something completely wrong in one chapter and I realize I've done the same thing through the entire book, it only gets me down for about five minutes. Literally. And then I'm fired up to fix it. I don't mind rewriting entire books, because I love the book, I love the characters, and I love writing.

I know that doesn't make me a genius. It merely opens up the possibility. What's that famous quote about genius? It's ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration? Could that literally be true?

I'm the first person to admit that hard work can't get you everything you want. I feel that there's more to genius than hard work, and love is as good a word as any other. Einstein spent years thinking about light before making the connection with time. Why? Because he loved thinking about it. He wanted to understand. He had that intense desire that can't be summoned up by will, or competition, or passing interest. He didn't come up with the answer after working on the problem for a day, or a few months. He spent years on it, during which he became the genius who knew enough about that specific problem to make the logical leap that gave us relativity. It's probably safe to say that no one had ever spent so much time and energy on the question of what happens when you travel the speed of light. It wasn't easy for him by any means.

When you really love doing something, you think about it, you practice it, it becomes part of your life, an integral part of who you are. Rather than setting aside discreet chunks of time to work on it, it finds its way into everything you do. You're always practicing. In that way, it's not just about hard work. No amount of hard work can get you what a genuine love of the task will get you. In fact, when you love doing something, it ceases to be work.

Writers like to complain about how hard writing is, how much work it takes to create a really good novel. In reality, they don't want anyone to find out they're being paid to do something they'd do for free. Am I right? Most wrote for many years before getting paid.

The moral of this story is that talent doesn't come from nowhere. It develops from love. If you weren't born writing perfect manuscripts, don't despair. All you need is love—and someday you'll be a genius, too.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Trained Chickens and Children

I have suspected for several years now that chickens may be among the least intelligent organisms in creation, below paramecia and perhaps just above chalk dust. (Is chalk dust an organism?) Imagine my surprise when we went to the bird show at Hogle Zoo, and they had a "trained" chicken. I put that word in quotes because its routine wasn't terribly impressive.

The show consisted mostly of parrots answering questions and various large raptors flying over the audience low enough to knock the top hats off the people wearing them—which was no one, fortunately. The chicken's trick was walking from one side of the stage to the other at apparently random times during the show. For the highlight of the performance, it "danced." I put that word in quotes because, well, it didn't exactly do the chicken dance, if you know what I mean. Basically, it just scratched around in the dirt. Pretty much like chickens normally do, except it did it at a certain time. Then the trainer told it to exit stage right—about half a dozen times. All this while there was probably another trainer trying to lure it offstage with a strawberry or something.

All in all, I was still impressed by how well the chicken performed, considering. I think the secret is training it to do something that kind of came naturally to begin with. Maybe that wisdom can be applied to raising children. Perhaps I should try using their natural proclivities instead of trying to get them to learn things that are completely against their nature.

I'll start teaching them to never flush the toilet, to fight with each other every opportunity they get, to put non-food objects in their mouths, and avoid actual food with the exception of desserts. Then I'll go to sleep at night knowing I'm a complete success as a parent.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Love

So, I write a post entitled "Suicide," and then go two weeks without posting anything else. Oops. A little weird?

And now for something completely different.

I love to write about love. The romantic kind. I'm a hopeless romantic, and this sometimes annoys my wife. (We defy gender stereotypes in that regard.) She does usually like the way I handle romantic elements in my writing, though.

Now, don't misunderstand what I mean when I say I'm a romantic. I'm not a flirt, player, Casanova, or anything else remotely like that. I think love should be like dutch oven cooking, not slapping a steak on an overly hot grill until the outside is seared and the inside is still raw. You've got to be patient with a dutch oven.

Nah, forget it; dutch ovens are boring. Flames are fun. Sizzling is exciting. But you still have to just let it happen, not force it or even expect it. When I write a love story, (and I've written, like, three of them,) it takes the entire story to get to the first kiss. Oh, except for my current WiP, which has a love story in reverse. Even then, it spans the book.

Love just always sneaks in there--along with suicide and food.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Suicide

I've written two novels. In both stories there are many ideas and themes that made their way in without my having to intentionally put them there. For instance, in each book, a central character is suicidal at the beginning. Furthermore, it’s part of the premise of a novel I’m planning.

I write about things and people that reflect who I am and my experiences. Obviously, I’ve never committed suicide, nor have I known anyone who did. But I do have some personal experience in that area. After you’ve attempted suicide, it’s hard to admit to anyone, even yourself, that you felt those feelings, did those things. But I can never forget where I've been. It makes life that much more precious, even ten years later.

In my writing, the suicidal characters are both female. (Maybe that’s a subconcious attempt to distance them from myself.) In Aersh, Tuatha is the embodiment of all my anger. She’s trapped in a bad situation with no out, and decides to strike out against her oppressor in a sabotage mission that will end in her death. In a way, she’s courageous, but she’s still checking out of life early. Her relationship to my own experience is metaphorical.

In The Sense, I never intended for Leah to become so much like me. I gave her the gift of a perfect memory, and somehow it became a curse. She finds herself trapped by memories of every mistake she’s ever made. Still, she doesn’t have Tuatha’s horrible past. She’s not trapped on a spaceship, forced to fight an unjust war. She’s never killed anyone. She still has family. Superficially, there’s nothing in her life bad enough to justify wanting to end it—her reasons are all internal. She has no excuses, no good reasons, and no hope. She walks to a cliff over a river, intending to kill herself. It’s not courageous, and there’s no higher purpose. Leah only wants to end the pain. Then Esha stops to help.


What happens next is that Esha uses her newfound supertalent to fix Leah’s memory problem. It’s essentially magic, but there’s much more happening here.

I, the author, put someone in Leah’s path who can help her, and even though she’s been let down so many times before, she accepted the help. Esha’s presence was enough to keep Leah from jumping, and Leah did her part by taking the hand that was offered to her. It’s the beginning of the book, and Leah’s problems come back. When they do, there’s someone else there to help her. Eventually, she’ll be the one offering help.

This isn’t metaphorical or magic—it’s what really happens. Thousands of people Leah’s age attempt suicide. It’s a part of life for many of us, one that we rarely discuss.

Suicidal tendencies don’t make for a good first impression. When the subject comes up in conversation, you don’t say anything. The people who know what you did don’t mention it, either. 



You know that what you’ve been through was painful and difficult. You know you’ve overcome great obstacles, and should be proud of yourself. You also know that you tried to kill someone dear to those you love. You nearly put them through all the pain and sorrow of losing a loved one. You are the victim and the murderer.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Thistlebury Tales, part 1

Outside the City of Smith, in the valley of buried furs, there's a small fiefdom known as Thistle Park. This domain is so named because of an abundance of birds, mostly the little black kind that make a shrill, annoying, single-note call and do such endearing things as building nests, hatching eggs, and letting their little ones fall to their deaths, all inside the exhaust vents of furnaces, thereby rendering said furnaces inoperable and causing their owners to have to saw the pipes in half to flush the rotted corpses of baby birds out into a bucket. Oh, my mistake. It's named for the chest-high thistles festooning the grounds.

In the eastern estate of Thistle Park, where the thistles grow thickest and tallest, is a quaint, old Butler grain silo twenty feet across and about eight feet high at the wall. No grain has laden this structure for many years, and a small flock of odious birds have taken up residence within. They aren't the little black kind that make a shrill, annoying, single-note call and do such things as...well, they're not the ones I was talking about earlier. These nefarious fowl are of several breeds: Buff Orpington, Ameruacana, and most diabolically, Golden Sex-Link. How the last arrived at their designation, I shall never know.

In other words, the granary's got chickens in it.

Our story begins, not three paragraphs ago, but when the master of the eastern estate at Thistle Park stepped out his front door this very evening, only to find the garage doors shut and locked. Returning through the front door, which, inexplicably, is on the same side of the manor as the back door, the undaunted master of the house walked through to the back door, which, inexplicably, is on the same side of the structure as the front door, and boldly opened the garage door from the inside.

Thus freed to take up his water bucket and grain scoop, our hero proceeded fearlessly, and directly to the old granary to tend to the uncouth brood. His path, though carefully cut and cleared of obstacles, nevertheless took him through an ankle deep patch of noxious weeds.

Suddenly! something cold and slimy found its way right between the master's third and fourth toes. You see, the good man had made the mistake, once again, of wearing sandals to do a shoes sort of job. And what, you may ask, was between the unfortunate goodman's toes? Nothing less than a--the faint of heart may wish to cease reading at this point--a slug!

Now, some may say that wearing sandals into deep, slug-infested weeds is a foolhardy approach. I say that the brave master of the eastern estate at Thistle Park merely has a proclivity for taking life by the horns, as it were, and braving the unknown dangers of his realm the way a true hero should: in sandals. Socks, I maintain, are for wimps.

Our hero skillfully extracted the hapless mollusc from between his lower phalanges and continued on his mission of hope, daring, and avian dangers incomprehensible to the uninitiated. But the story of how he fearlessly walked directly under roosting hens not once, not twice, but four times, and the harrowing tale of the field of thorns which he crossed shod with nothing but thongs (oh, wait. They call them flop-flips these days, do they not?) must wait for another day.

The hour grows late, and the songs of the crickets call me to my bed. Goodnight for now, sweet reader. May flights of those little black birds that make a shrill, annoying, single-note call sing thee to thy rest.

I've got to get those crickets out of my bed.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Muse-ic

Clever title, no?

Music breathes life into words. You can take a mediocre-to-bad poem, set it to a catchy tune, and it becomes profound and meaningful. Just look at the lyrics of your favorite song written down on paper without the music. Chances are they're pretty lame on their own. (There are exceptions, many of which were good poetry before they were songs.) Ha! I'd like to see Message in a Bottle written down in its entirety. "Message in a bottle, message in a bottle, message in a bottle..."

With good music, if the lyrics are at all meaningful, it's a winner in my book. I listen to the words. I learn them. I sing along. If the song is in Spanish, I Google the lyrics and run them through the translator just so I know what the heck is so important that it should have such nice music with it. I do listen to the words.

Every week iTunes has three free downloads, plus a music video. There's usually at least one that I'll like enough to download, and sometimes it's all four, even the Spanish one.

Sometimes, they pick songs that I simply adore, and I listen to them over and over all week long. (After which I'm usually sick of them.) Take this week's songs, for example. Since Tuesday, I've listened to Life and Break Me Out twenty-four times. (What the heck is wrong with me? I figure as long as I still like them, I might as well play them over and over, ad nauseam. Maybe there's a set number of days before I get sick of a song, and not a set number of plays. I shall have to experiment further.) Does anyone else do that?

Occasionally--about once a month--the people at iTunes will pick a song that strongly connects with what I'm writing in both feeling and words. Last month's I Am Not a Robot fit nicely with my invisible people driving cars idea that I had around that same time.

Last week's American Slang has the line "You told me fortunes in American slang." It always makes me think of Alley. And I swear the words sung in the background behind that phrase are "In a dream I had."

This week's Single of the Week, Break Me Out, strikes me as one of those songs that perfectly capture a certain common feeling. Sure, it's just rock, and sounds a little country-ish, but if my life were a movie, this would be the soundtrack beneath the summer-after-high-school scene. That was when I wanted to take a ream of paper and a box of pens and ride my bike (the real kind of bike) across the country. I wanted to get out and see the sunrise...well, pretty much like the song says. And I longed for someone (read: a girl) to get away with. "They'll carry on, who'll notice we're gone? So easily replaced."

I went to college instead.

Another song like that is 1979, but it captures a different feeling. It's more the "what's the point?" feeling I had through most of high school. (Incidentally, I was born in 1979.) The words don't say anything very concrete, like many songs. Overall, they paint a clear picture. Go listen, and you'll see it. It ain't pretty. "We were sure we'd never see an end to it all...we don't know just where our bones will rest."

I love music. I love words. Together, they have unmatched power. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What a dream I had...

Actually, my wife had the dream. In it, Brian and Esha were walking down the sidewalk, discussing Esha's newfound abilities. They came across Alley, who was sitting on the sidewalk, telling fortunes--highly accurate fortunes--for a dollar each.

My better half actually woke me up at about three in the morning to tell me that dream. Thanks, sweetie.

So, guess how my book begins.

(I'll give you a hint: it doesn't start with Leah writing a suicide note and walking to the river, and doesn't have Alley nearly getting creamed by a car.)

Yes, I used a dream to start The Sense, and it wasn't even mine. Have you ever had a dream worth writing?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Teen Disease

Dear Sixteen-Year-Old Self,

Have you noticed that the idea that teenagers are brain-damaged is passing into the common consciousness? I'm talking about the notion that young adults can't judge risks, don't reason the same way adults do, and aren't capable of making big decisions like whom to marry. It's like you're not fully human, but in a stage of development between larva and adult, sort of a walking pupa. Teens are creatures to be protected and tolerated. You can't help the way you are; it's biological.

In this view, when teenagers drive recklessly or take risks, it's because you're incapable of proper judgment. If you fall in love, it's hormonal. If you get upset about the environment or politics, it's just because you're trying to find your place in the world. You'll grow out of it. Teens always do. We were all idealistic and naive at that age. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I'm guilty, I confess, of dismissing the entire age group from twelve to twenty-one as endemically insane. That attitude started when I was you, and part of that age group. You are keenly aware of how unimportant your own problems seem compared to those of so-called adults in the "real world." No matter how many times you tell yourself to relax and get over things, you never can. Your journal for the next few years will be full of tortured lamentations about your social life, girls, the state of the world, and your own mental health. (Mostly girls, actually. Also, maybe you should consider writing something positive in it once in awhile.)

You can tell yourself that you have nothing to complain about. Your life is good, your health is good, you have friends and family who love you, and yet there are a few things that constantly bother you, and no amount of internal pep-talking will change that. It's important to learn to talk to girls, vital to get into Caltech, absolutely necessary to be well-liked and popular. Writing poetry will be like heart medication, and books like water. You'll try everything, sure that each new interest will be your life's work. In your dreams, you'll be a photographer for National Geographic, an astronomer, a cyclist, a theoretical physicist, a journalist, a computer tycoon, and a novelist. To others, they'll be the idle dreams of a child, but they are so much more important to you.

Someday you'll realize that it's all part of being a teenager. You'll forgive yourself for acting like a teen, but not because you couldn't help it. You see, at age 30 you'll realize something that will get you past the notion that teenage drama can be dismissed with a smile and a pat on the head. I'll tell you the secret:

Everything that seems so important really is that important.

You're in that painful, awful, wonderful, amazing age when you instinctively know this, but are conditioned to ignore it. The problems of adolescence might not be problems for us jaded old folks, but so what? We've crossed those bridges; we've screwed up our lives already. You are in the process of becoming the adult you'll be for the rest of your life.

There are a lot of people (adults) eager to exploit the sense of urgency that you naturally feel. Advertisers use your desire to find a place by telling you to look and act a certain way, or more specifically, buy certain products and services. Political movements offer easy targets for your idealism. The fact is that even though the decisions you make are very important, many of the things you'll choose to do aren't important.

What's so important about teen romance, though? With a few exceptions, romances form for the wrong reasons and fall apart for similar reasons. They can certainly be fun, but they're also painful. A broken romance will feel life-shattering at the time, but in the long run, does it really matter? Actually, it does. It's through such ordeals and mistakes that you'll learn how—and whom—to love. Let yourself feel deeply. Love and lose.

The same goes for failed classes and endeavors. In college, you'll fail a physics class—and it will matter, because you'll change your entire career path afterward.

I could tell you a lot about your future. I could say that someday you'll have a wife, a home, cute kids, and all sorts of great things that you want, but none of that will really help where you are, will it? You can't live in the future. You're stuck in the painful present.

It doesn't have to be all pain. When it is, look around and find someone to help. No, not to help you—someone for you to help. Even though you're not in a position of broad influence, you are in a position of great influence over a few people. Reach out to those around you. Help them. Serve them.

Before you find a pretty girl who needs and wants you around every minute of every day, you can still find love right where you are. Don't take your sisters and mother for granted. Allow yourself to be close to your brothers and father. They don't merely love you because you're related; they love you for who you are. And you love them.

When you make mistakes, forgive yourself. Take a deep breath, and forgive yourself. If there's one thing you remember from this letter, remember to forgive yourself.

Someday, you'll think back on these years in amazement. What you learn now will influence your life, your relationships, and especially your writing. You think you want to write science fiction for adults, but you'll fall into writing what you don't even know you know, about a group of people you don't think you understand. And maybe someone will understand what you write.

Let me offer you a bit of advice one of your characters might give to her friends, with the help of Robert Frost:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction, ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

May you use the desires of the world to melt its ice, and then use the water to put out the fire. Think big, act small. You'll figure it out.

With love and great admiration,
Your Thirty-One-Year-Old Self

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ideeeeuhz!

Writers don't have to worry about other people stealing their ideas. There are several reasons for this. First, an idea is such a tiny grain of a thing that by the time it's a book, it's like the author's severed hand, with his or her fingerprints all over it. Ugh. Like that last sentence. What I mean is, books are so personal, no one else can write my books. Even if we start with the exact same idea, the books will turn out completely unique.

The second reason might only apply to me. My ideas all sound so stupid, no one would even want to steal them. And I'm talking about the really good ones that I actually get excited about. I have hundreds of weird ideas for stories, but in the last couple of years, I've only had four that I got excited about. The first one is the book I'm working on, plus vague ideas about two possible sequels. Then there's the brilliant idea that came to me at work a couple weeks ago.

Wanna hear it? Invisible people driving cars. AWESOME!

Yeah, my wife reacted the same way I imagine you are. "Huh?"

Yeah, it is a weird idea. Maybe even stupid. That's all it was: invisible people driving cars. No plot, no characters to speak of, and not even a good premise, but I knew instantly that I was onto something. You see, I work at a company that makes autonomous vehicles--driverless cars. For several years I've thought there has to be a good story in that somewhere. I'm an insider in a world where we play video games with real cars, for cryin' out loud. I've thought of terrorist plots, rampaging robotic vehicles, and, uh, that was about it. Nothing about cars driving themselves excited me.

Part of the problem might be that these driverless cars are pretty stupid. The other day I filmed a Toyota Highlander navigating autonomously through an obstacle course of plastic barrels. It made it, alright. It was freakin' awesome to all of us who know how hard it is to get a computer to do stuff like that. To anyone else, it would look like the driver was half-blind. (Sneak up to a barrel, turn real sharp, crawl carefully past it, creep to the next one, etc.) Considering the computer's eyes were a laser scanner, it really was half blind. I've no doubt the state of that art will continue to advance, but right now even a terrified sixteen-year-old is a better driver than any computer--on the open road. There are many applications where a computer is a better driver: agriculture, mining, endurance testing, for example. But for scouting new territory or navigating city streets, computers just aren't ready. It's too bad, really, because it would be nice if we could send vehicles into really dangerous situations (like war) without risking human lives. We do it in the air all the time. It's trickier on the ground.

What if a company suddenly introduced unmanned ground vehicles that did everything a human driver can do? It would completely change the field. They'd be invaluable tools for urban warfare. Just tell em what to do, and off they go, fearless.

There's currently only one way to make a vehicle that does all that: invisible people. The vehicles aren't really unmanned, of course, but everyone thinks they are. They'd be a guilt-free class of suicide bombers for our side of the "war on terror," and offer huge possibilities for human drama.

This is where it gets hard to explain the potential I see in this idea. I've worked out enough of the details to have the beginnings of a story in my head. The thing about novels is it takes tens of thousands of words to tell them. If it didn't, they'd be short stories. Or blog entries.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Exit

When I was quite a bit younger than I am now, I had an imaginary friend named Exit. I named him after the glowing green signs. Exit was probably the first word I learned to recognize by sight, but other than that, I have no idea why I named him "Exit."

Exit was a nice guy. He was a lot like me, in fact. Kind of quiet, unassuming, easy to get along with. Except, Exit didn't really have a face...or a body. That made him kind of boring to play with. It was always nice to know he was there, though. Aside from my sister's friends Junior and Cheepert, with whom I had a more casual acquaintance, that was about it for imaginary friends—until now.

When I finished the first draft of my second novel, I found myself feeling sad and pathetic. Sure, it was nice to write the final words, but after closing my laptop and leaving for my day job, I realized two things:
  • First, the book was finished. I couldn't wake up the next morning and think of new and interesting things to do with—or to—my characters. A close relationship with ten of my best friends had ended, or at least substantially changed.
  • Second, ten of my best friends weren't even real people.
Worse than that, they were people that I made up. I guess that doesn't make them any less real than, say, Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher, but at least those characters have actors to give them faces. My new imaginary friends are a lot like my first in that I can't touch them, and can't quite see their faces when I close my eyes, even though I can describe their features in detail.

Unlike Exit, this new group of friends aren't always easy to get along with. They all come from somewhere inside me, and I can relate to all of them on some level, but they aren't just reflections of myself. They're composites of experiences, people, feelings, and random flotsam from my life. And I care about them. I feel what they feel. I want what they want. I know them so intimately, I can speak their lines along with them, if not half a second before.

Long ago, I tried to write a story about Exit on an old manual typewriter. It was the first story I'd ever tried to type, and I only got three letters into it before hitting a snag. I spent about five minutes searching for the X key and then gave up, assuming that since the letter X isn't used very often, they'd simply left it off the typewriter. I felt a bit miffed.

Now I've written somewhere between 250 and 300 thousand words about imaginary people doing fantastic things. It's fun. It's a lot of fun. I could go on for the rest of my life creating new people and doing nasty things to them. Some of us never grow up.