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


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


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.