As most of you who know me are aware, I am not exactly the most organized person out there. My books, DVDs, CDs, computer files, et cetera, yes, they are fairly orderly, and I don’t have much trouble finding what I need. No, my central (but not sole) area of disorganization is in organizing my time. In school, my packets are pretty consistently at least a day late (sometimes much, MUCH more), and my personal projects never seem to get off the ground floor largely due to me not dedicating time to them after getting them started.

It’s not something I’m exactly proud of, but that makes it no less an issue. After several abortive attempts (heh), I’ve decided to try and schedule my time a bit more rigidly. Using iCal, I’ve made a daily schedule for myself, alloting time for the projects and tasks that I want and/or need to get done. It runs roughly from 8am to 8pm, and includes time for meals, puppy wrangling, showers, et cetera. (It both begins and ends with a puppy feeding, hence the 8 and 8.) Evenings are for spending time with Mickey, days are dedicated to getting my shit off the ground. When it’s time to switch to the next item in the schedule, my computer beeps at me, in the loudest, most noticeable alarm noise I have.
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Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone :)

Sorry for disappearing for a while like that. I have been doing a few things with my time, and I do mean “few”. They have primarily involved doing schoolwork, and coming up with a content management solution I’m actually happy with for Critical Games. Mambo just wasn’t doing it for me… it felt kind of like a Ferrari that was missing a steering wheel… looked awesome, but was a pain to actually drive.

I did a lot more digging than was probably necessary, and finally found NucleusCMS, which is really flexible in what I put in and don’t put in… documentation isn’t the best, and the forums are slow in response time, but after dealing with some of the other systems out there I managed to figure a lot of it out on my own. I migrated it into production tonight. (Whee!)

Non-geekstuff in the extended entry, I swear:
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Seattle Brother

Just for those keeping track: my brother just got into town after driving himself and his belongings across the country. He pulled an all-nighter for the last stretch, and is thus currently passed out on the Giant Purple Chair of Doom (Of Death! Of Sinus Infection!). It’s good to have Uri out here, and it should be fun getting to show him the area a bit.

Anyway, just wanted to post a quick update letting you all know he made it across safely.

Annotation: Sometimes the Magic Works

Before getting into the meat of the actual book, I thought this might be a good spot to point out an observation I’ve discovered in the books on writing that I’ve read so far. It may not be a requirement to be egotistical to be a successful professional writer, but it certainly seems to help. Perhaps it is because they spend so much time pretending to be or writing about someone else, but it seems like any opportunity where it MIGHT be appropriate to talk about themselves, they do so, often in the most self-aggrandizing fashion they can. This isn’t just an observation from the books on writing I’ve read thus far, it’s also from meeting various authors at conventions. (I should, however, mention that there are definitely many exceptions to this notion… it just doesn’t feel like it, sometimes.) I’m not trying to single Terry out, either. He is no worse (and in many ways better) than a lot of others I’ve had the chance to read or talk to. Honestly, I think my frustration just stems from reading a chain of these books, and Mr. Brooks is really nothing more than the proverbial straw.

In the tradition of other books of its ilk (such as On Writing and Bird by Bird), Sometimes the Magic Works is more a memoir of a writer than it is a book on writing. There is a lot to be said for this style of book. The subject material is kept interesting and engaging through personal anecdotes, and their autobiographical story is inherently encouraging (no one lives a charmed life, after all). The drawback, of course, being that it is more up to the reader to glean the useful information out of the text than it would be with more cut and dry books on writing. By and large, I think that tradeoff is a worthwhile one.

Sometimes the Magic Works is broken into separate chapters that largely work as self-contained essays (there is the occasional reference to an earlier chapter’s comments, but otherwise are encapsulated nicely). The reading was informal and amusing, making for a quick read. Rather than break it down chronologically, Brooks breaks up the book according to the subject he’s talking about. For instance, one of the early chapters is called “Luck”, which discusses when his first novel was accepted, by none other than Lester Del Rey, who personally took him under his wing and made the book (The Sword of Shannara) the flagship fantasy novel under the fledgling Del Rey imprint. Had his submission been a few weeks earlier or later, that flagship role would have gone to a different author, and we may have never heard of Terry Brooks at all. That is a prime example of Luck, with a capital “L”. There is no amount of planning or skill that can account for fortuitous timing. (The encouraging flipside of this story: it points out that these sorts of lucky breaks DO happen, fate will help you, but you have to do a little legwork as well, like writing a good book and submitting it.)

Another chapter that was interesting to read was called “It’s Not About You”. This chapter talked about his very first book signing, sitting next to the esteemed A.J. Budrys, a well known and respected veteran author. He’d had these grand dreams of how book signings would be… which were promptly squashed thoroughly by the reality of the signing: he didn’t sell or sign a single book the entire day. This was a pretty humbling experience for him, and made Terry really reassess his idea of what book signings were about. What he decided ultimately was that book signings are about making a connection with your readers (or potential readers). It’s not about being adored, or having swarms of fans around, hanging on your every word. It’s about talking with another person and making a connection with them that they (and hopefully yourself as well) will remember later. I can really get behind this idea. It is a far more rewarding experience, in my opinion, than it would be to sit around acting like an ass because you think everyone there is a fanboy.

On the topic of actual writing, it was nice to get an alternative viewpoint to the other authors I’ve read: neither King and Goldberg don’t use outlines for their writing, but Brooks swears by them. His stance is this: because of outlining the story, plot, characters, and locations before writing the actual story, he is able to keep his first draft far more cohesive than other authors. Generally speaking, he is able to write one draft, do one rewrite, and be ready for publication. Other authors end up doing rewrite after rewrite trying to wrap up their story. He does mention, however, (and if he hadn’t, I would have) that it comes down to figuring out what style works best for you, as there are plenty of successful authors in both camps (and even some in between).

Overall, I found this an enjoyable book, and reasonably insightful and informative. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Terry Brooks or fiction writing in general. I would say it is a worthwhile addition to the “writer’s memoir” genre.

Brooks, Terry. Sometimes the Magic Works. New York: Del Rey, 2003.

Rainy in Seattle

Well, since no one else is posting, I figure I may as well keep up the good fight. This is just a general update on what’s going on with me, so relax, no revelations or brain-hurt this time.

My mother-in-law is visiting this week, which is nice, and the puppy is growing like a sprout. She’s largely well behaved, and is too smart by half, as Mickey would say… good because she understands a lot, but bad because it means she’s constantly knows her boundaries and then PUSHES them. Silly pup. We’re hoping to put her in puppy training classes soon.
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Annotation: Friday

Robert A. Heinlein has been considered one of the (if not THE) most influential science fiction authors of the modern era. He wrote fiction for over fifty years, primarily in the field of science fiction, and became the first recipient of the Grand Master Nebula award, an award given for exemplary writing and contribution to the field over a lifetime of writing. There is a very good reason for him receiving this award: his ideas and writing style are both superb in both concept and implementation. He has been accused of being bigoted and sexist, and given some underlying themes within his writing, it is most likely true. This does not change the fact that the stories themselves are masterfully done, and well worth reading.

Friday was released roughly six years before Robert’s death, making it one of his last written works (The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and To Sail Beyond the Sunset are two later books that come to mind), and his last work not involved in his massive Future History collection of stories. The book is written in the style of a memoir, following the life of Friday Jones, an Artificial Person (AP) who works as an extremely talented courier for a para-military organization (the name of the organization is never given). She is sent all over the world as well as off-planet, delivering and retrieving information for her employer, “Boss”. At the outset of the book, she is just completing a mission and is returning home. After completing her mission, she goes on vacation. While on vacation, a series of sabotages and assassinations occur, stranding her away from her organization. The story then follows her adventures getting through closed borders and trying to report in. Once she has finally reported in, things settle down until her Boss passes away. Her life is turned upside down, and she ends up taking a job as a courier heading off-planet. The job goes awry, however, when she discovers that she will likely be killed after making her delivery, so she ends up jumping ship during a planetary stop. The book ends with her happy on this colony planet.

That, of course, is very much a synopsis, and doesn’t really deal with any of the details that are discussed in the rest of the book. What really makes the book excellent is the combination of attention to detail and narrative voice. The universe of the book has a rich and robust history and society, and he really works it in beautifully to depict it (which, I will admit, was aided by Friday’s profession taking her globally, giving a perfect excuse to SHOW, rather than TELL). The world is believable, in a scary sort of way, taking place once we are in a space-faring era, with colonies on other worlds (including the moon and stations in space). In this world, we have the environment largely under control, it is well within reason to live in New Zealand and commute to Winnipeg for work, and nations as we know them have fragmented and/or congealed into new structures (ironically, I’ve seen the breakdown Heinlein uses before, with only slight variation, in a book called The Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garreau). For instance, the nation that Friday normally lives in is the Chicago Imperium, which essentially governs the current U.S. “heartland”. Other countries include Alaska Free State, Quebec, California Confederacy, and others. There is a nominal world government, but it is largely ignored by the author, possibly intentionally. Considering the amount of autonomy there is between countries, this actually sort of makes sense — why mention something that has no impact on your life (or the story at hand)?

From a sociological aspect, there is a dichotomy between “tradition” and technology. The advent of new, safe, clean energy (Shipstones) does away with the need for power plants and wires strewn across the landscape, and most old cities have been completely wiped away. There is a strange combination of “proper behavior for a lady” and sexual freedom and autonomy that suggests (to me) that in the intervening years between “now” and then (200+ years in the future) there have been several more radical swings between liberal and ultra-conservative views in society. If I had been asked whether this seemed realistic, as late as the 1990s, I probably would have said no. However, given the current swing back towards conservatism and “propriety”, I’m inclined to say that Heinlein once again called it spot on. (He may have been trained as an engineer, but in my opinion his strength lay in social and technological observation/speculation.)

What really makes this a fantastic book for me, however, is the role of Artificial People and Living Artifacts in the story, including the primary character and narrator. The difference between an Artificial Person (AP) and a Living Artifact (LA) is their form. APs are Living Artifacts that have the additional caveat of looking human. They may be smarter, stronger, faster. They might have better memories, or innate spatial awareness, or any of the above… but they look human in every discernible way. Living Artifacts do not have this restriction, and can take the form of near-mythical creatures like Kobolds, or mermen, or even just talking dogs. Here, function takes precedence over form: kobolds were designed for mining for instance.

While the technology of this is interesting, that’s not the part that grabs me. The involving aspect this has is the psychological effect of being treated like a third-class citizen (read: slave) by the rest of the world — APs do not have rights, and despite the fact that due to her work she’s had all records of her being designed destroyed, SHE knows it, and lets it affect her behavior. The inherent loneliness of this situation is remarkably well done in the course of the story, and often manifests it in Friday’s desire to belong, whether it is with work, in a family, or with friends. I think this really strikes a chord in me, on a lot of levels, or with anyone who has wanted to be accepted.

I really enjoyed Friday, and would definitely recommend it to others. I think it is an excellent example of Heinlein’s writing, and an amusing, intelligent story in its own right. I also think this book, combined with others such as the movie Gattaca, could be used quite effectively in an academic setting to juxtapose possible scenarios created through genetic manipulation (Gattaca relegating “normal” people to second class citizens, Friday turning the genetically modified into slaves).

Heinlein, Robert A. Friday. New York: Del Ray, 1982.

Annotation: On Writing

Stephen King is not exactly what one would call an “obscure” writer. In fact, you walked down the street, any street, and asked random people who came to mind when asked for a modern author, chances are fairly high that a pretty large number will mention Mr. King. Some rave about his work, others think he’s a hack, but either way, he most decidedly someone who knows how to write, and whom people will listen to about writing. It’s fitting, then, that he chose to make his memoir about writing.

King makes a point at the very beginning of the book of pointing out that he has tried to strip away the bullshit, leaving just useful (or at least anecdotal) information. I applaud his efforts, and feel that he largely succeeded: it reads both fast and well, with very little getting dragged out beyond what is necessary to convey his point.

The book is broken into several sections, starting with a personal memoir of his childhood and early writing career, basically spelling out how he came to be who and how he is. This was amusing and insightful to read, as well as vaguely validating concerning my own life: in terms of creative impulses and literary origins, we have a lot in common. For instance, as junior-high children, he and his brother created their own newspaper (“Dave’s Rag” named after his brother David), which they sold among family, neighbors, and classmates. As a sixth grader, I was involved in a similar endeavor (though entirely on my own), writing a book review newsletter that I sold for a dime to classmates, until the school shut me down (I was not using any of their resources, and privately the teachers appreciated the effort, but there was a policy of not selling non-school related things in school).

One of the most moving bits in the personal memoir portion of the book for me would have to be when he was talking about the call he got when Carrie’s paperback rights sold. He and his wife were living in a beat-up, roach infested apartment, scrambling to make ends meat. His editor called him, and told him that the rights to Carrie had sold for $400,000 dollars. His wife was out of town and Stephen had no way to contact her about it, and spent the afternoon pacing around waiting for her to get home… when she did, he told her. She just looked around the shithole of an apartment and started crying. That’s a pretty intense little bit of humanity. Both Stephen and his wife Tabitha were college educated, but from poor working class families. Quite literally, it’s like being given a golden ticket out of the hard life. It’s not enough to retire on, no, but it’s enough to get out of the hard place they were in. I know it’s a rare thing to get that much money for book rights, but it really does leave this gem of hope for anyone who wants to be a writer.

The next portion of On Writing is called “What Writing Is”, and is really about just that. The section is short, just a chapter long. What it comes down to for Stephen, and I largely agree with this assessment, is that writing is a form of telepathy. It is a meeting of minds: the writer’s and the reader’s, at least if it’s done well. It’s not a matter of describing every detail (that really does nothing more than bog down this mental communication), but sharing enough that there is a shared picture in the minds of everyone involved: the reader, the writer, the characters in the story. He closes this section with a pleading request that we take writing seriously, which I second. Something worth clarifying here: I’m not talking about writers being taken seriously — too often, they are taken TOO seriously, in fact. Nor am I talking about what is written being taken seriously — I somehow doubt Douglas Adams wanted Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to be treated as a serious tome. What I (and Stephen) am talking about is taking the act of writing seriously. If you aren’t willing to commit yourself to the task of writing, then don’t do it. Go read a book, play a game, watch a movie, do anything else, but don’t waste your time and ours by going in and writing half-assedly.

The third section of the book is called “Toolbox”, and discusses the writer’s toolbox, at length. The metaphor of a multi-layered toolbox is a good one: you keep your key tools at the top, and open deeper when you need to. Vocabulary and grammar are the two biggest tools at the top: looking for themes within your writing, something the author suggests leaving until your first draft is DONE, is further down. This may be less true for plot-driven pieces, but his work is largely situational. He does not outline, just comes up with a situation, creates the basic skeleton of some characters, and sees what develops where and when. It’s an interesting concept, and one that I don’t see suggested often enough. So many books on writing talk steadily about the need for outlining, and pre-planning in varying amounts (but rarely no planning at all). This isn’t something that should need validation (ie, hand-holding), but it is still nice to actually have a successful writer say “Don’t worry about it, just let it go where it goes.”

I found the ranting King does in the Toolbox section hilarious but spot-on. He discusses several of his pet peeves such as adverbs, passive verbs, and cliché metaphors and similies. Of course, after all the rants and arguments against them, King does point out that he is vaguely hypocritical about this. He tries to catch these things, but sometimes stuff just slips through. But really, I think that’s kind of the point. In my opinion, it’s not that these things should be actually shunned, but that they are things that if used too much, they become painful. Unless you have angelic levels of restraint and a DEEP understanding of the English language, it’s best to avoid them simply so that when they DO appear (and they will), they’ll be used in moderation.

The fourth portion of On Writing is the title section. It is a strange mishmash of personal curmudgeonly diatribe and remarkably useful and sage writing advice. His discussion of the use and development of theme was remarkably insightful, as was his diatribe about getting over ourselves about trying to pretend that we live in a vacuum as writers. In so many other artforms, especially when learning, it is expected that you will try to emulate the style or even composition of prior artists. But in writing, there is this myth and fear that writing “in the style of” another author is plagiarism. It’s bullshit, and if you stop to think about it for even a moment it’s obviously bullshit, but that doesn’t stop us from having that initial gut feeling that we have to fight to overcome. I’m as guilty as the next person about this one… I used to get so upset, feeling like I was “ripping off” some of my favorite authors, and only realized much later that there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. It is part of developing your own voice, if nothing else.

The final section of the book was about recovering and returning to writing after a near fatal accident the author was in during the summer of 1999. It’s a pretty intense piece of writing, deeply personal and yet filled with fact-finding and observations. In all of it, I’d say the part that most impacted me was when he was talking about his intial recovery:

I entered the hospital on June nineteenth. Around the twenty-fifth I got up for the first time, staggering three steps to a commode, where I sat with my hospital johnny in my lap and my head down, trying not to weep and failing. You try to tell yourself that you’ve been lucky, most incredibly lucky, and usually that works because it’s true. Sometimes it doesn’t work, that’s all. Then you cry. (King 263)

What was really heartening about the whole ordeal is just how supportive his wife was throughout all of it. When the author decided he needed to get back to work, Tabitha backed him up, setting up a workspace where he would have access in his wheelchair, and then staying within earshot but not in the way while he tried writing (this was a period of time that due to his injuries, even being upright for more than 45 minutes at a time caused him serious searing pain). This sort of support is way more valuable in my eyes than any amount of accolades. It’s a real show of trust.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book, without qualification. Regardless of whether you are a Stephen King fan or not, or whether you are interested in writing or not, it was an enjoyable book, and worth the time to read.

Annotation: Writing Down the Bones

I think it is worth mentioning, at least in passing, the similarities between what is discussed in Writing Down the Bones and what is brought up in Art & Fear. This is by no means a bad thing, as the similarities focus around a very important message: get out of your own damn way and let yourself be the creative person you truly are. When congealed down to a single statement like that, it may seem a little hokey, a bit like something a motivational speaker would say, but it is absolutely true: the biggest limitation in our creative growth is our fear of being creative. The sooner we realize this and stop being so self-critical (to the point of paralysis, in some cases), the sooner we will become what we hope to be.

The structure of Writing Down the Bones is simple and more useful through its simplicity. Rather than building upon each prior chapter in a linear fashion, this book can largely be read in any order you want. This is intentional, a design used to allow these brief (2-5 page) essays to be used on an individually encapsulated fashion, like a reference book. I really enjoyed this style of writing, at least partially because it kept any thought or message the author was trying to convey encapsulated into a small body of text. This really helps keep the “literary mental masturbation” to a bare minimum: in a five page essay, there is much less room for the sort of hoop-jumping and fluffing that occurs in most writing of this type.

One concept that Ms. Goldberg brought up repeatedly was the use of regular journaling as a technique to both get the creative juices flowing as well as to get you used to the concept of generating output every day, even if it is never seen by anyone else (or even if it’s material you don’t WANT anyone else to see). It gets the crud at the surface of the mind out of the way, allowing your deeper creative self room to express itself. Generally speaking, I agree with her: streaming consciousness is all well and good, but the “good” stuff is when we progress past that into the streaming unconscious. I disagree with her to some extent, however, concerning how much she uses that period almost entirely as warm-up, delineating it from any other writing she chooses to do that day. This disagreement, however, is roughly akin to whether milk chocolate or dark chocolate is best: both are good and perfectly valid choices, and which is preferred is entirely a matter of taste.

Something we are in complete agreement about, however, is the need (almost requirement) for passion. What makes a writer — or any artist, for that matter — good is the ability to see even the most mundane, ignored aspects of life in a passionate manner. Red wheelbarrows are glazed with rainwater all over the world, but it took William Carlos Williams to notice and appreciate it enough to write about one. Long before anyone suggested this to me, I was declaring to anyone who would listen how important the little moments were to me. I live for them, and cherish them so much. I feel emptier when I haven’t noticed any of these moments in a while, and I feel enriched every time I do catch it. The next step, a step I used to take but for some reason have become too timid to do now, is write about these moments.

Which brings us to the another subject Goldberg wrote about: validation. I used to write about the moments I had experienced, but did not receive any validation from my peers about what I was sharing. Most of the time, the most I could get out of anyone was “It’s good, I just don’t know what to say.” Finally, I just stopped writing, because I felt like I was ripping my heart out in my writing only to find out that no one was willing to take it. (I am aware that this is largely whining, crying over spilled milk, but that’s part and parcel with this subject: it is easy to get into this cycle of feeling under appreciated and then refusing to believe if even when you ARE appreciated or validated.) This, of course, is just another way we block ourselves: we should be writing for ourselves, not writing to be validated by our peers. By seeking validation, all we do is set ourselves up for disappointment, because a lot of the time, it simply won’t happen.

The final subject I want to bring up specifically from Writing Down the Bones (though not the final subject of the book) is that of coffee shops, restaurants, and other public spaces to write. Some people need their dens to write in, they need it quiet (or with their choice of music playing), and the door closed away from the world. Others — like myself, apparently, as well as the author — need public spaces. Borrowing a term from Ray Oldenburg, third spaces, places that are neither home nor work that serves a social function. Especially as an introvert, these spaces (generally coffee shops, personally) create a sort of insular bubble where there is activity around you, but that you are not required to participate in. I find this environment extremely motivating, and end up writing easily three times as much as I do at home (it took me over a day to write the first paragraph of this essay at home. I have written the entire rest of the essay in a little over an hour sitting in a Barnes & Noble Café). Some of her suggestions about new third spaces have a lot of promise, which I plan to look into at some point in the not too distant future (restaurants, for instance). Some might call third spaces a crutch, and that I should be able to write ANYWHERE. They may be right, but frankly I don’t really care. It is worth it to me to spend the $1-5 a session buying coffee, tea, or juice in exchange for the amount of creative output I gain over sitting at home for free. I’m inclined to believe that Goldberg would agree.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Writing Down the Bones, and would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to write (or to a lesser extent, create any sort of art). I finished the book very quickly, which is more a testament to the writing in the book than it is to the length. Originally, I was considering just borrowing this book from the library, but after reading it, I am glad to be able to have it on my shelf.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston: Shambala Publications, 1986.