Thursday, January 30, 2014

Fail Train

I've given up making any pretense of not being obsessive about my coffee. Now I write everything down after every pot. What worked, what didn't work. How I poured, how long I brewed, whether or not I was wearing pants at the time. You know, all the usual factors. Soon I will split the java atom and the entire world will be hyper and delicious.

I think this damn Chemex encourages that behavior. It's the Hellraiser Cube of caffeine. Or, if you are nerdy enough, the Lament Configuration of caffeine. Whatever. Someday I will hit on the right combination of brewing conditions, a delightful aroma will fill the air of my kitchen, and then chains will shoot out of the darkness and rip me asunder while Doug Bradley ponderously lectures me on the ethics of pleasure-seeking and sourcing the right free trade coffee beans. Then I'll come back as a coffee-themed cenobite, possibly with a teapot permanently wedged into the side of my skull. Either way it's pasty white makeup and bondage gear for me, which I'm a-okay with.

Really, this whole process is life in a nutshell. Well, not the bondage gear and Doug Bradley parts. Except if you actually do know Doug Bradley and you're into the S&M scene, in which case I envy you a bit. He seems like a cool guy and S&M communities are famously full of well-adjusted and friendly people. And I write that without the least bit of sarcasm or irony--every person I've ever met who's into that sort of thing tends to be completely awesome. Must be something about getting all that stuff out of your system, I guess.

No, I mean the bits about using a very fiddly and temperamental device to get results.

The best parts of life are kind of fiddly and complicated. I think it scares people off, which is why so many people just do the same thing day in and day out. They get up, go to a job without much challenge, go straight home, fire up the television, watch the same TV shows, which are likely to be either reality television, a procedural of some sort or a sitcom...and then they go to bed only to do it all over again, wash, rinse, repeat.

Safe and predictable leads to stagnation and boredom. The more you're sure of exactly what's going to happen, the worse for you it'll be in the long run. I am the king of boring and predictable, so I know whereof I speak here. I've had entire years where I've just chained day after day of the same old shit together and the end result? Nothing much at all.

But the days where I put my foot through my comfort zone and burst through the other side Kool-Aid Man style? Fuck, yeah. It pays to blow shit up in your life every once in a while even if your experiment might not work out very well.

It's nice to fail at something every once in a while. It means you're trying something new and unpredictable. Something different. Sure, you might wind up with a pot of craptacular coffee you might have to suffer through that morning but eventually dark toasty goodness and the caffeine buzz to rival the Golden Apples Of Olympus could be yours.

If you looked into the life of happy/successful people, really dug deep, you'd probably find a lot of fucking up in the background details. I suspect if you weighed it all, life is about 90% fucking things up and then a small amount of big wins. Or, if you want to paraphrase John Lennon, a good life is what happens when you're fucking up constantly.

Fail more. Wallow in it. Then learn. Doesn't mean you have to like it, though.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Randomness

That last story was pretty fun. Why do I always seem to get Southern Gothic on these random rolls? I don't know shit about Southern Gothic literature beyond the obligatory Poe and a few movies. I suppose that's the point of true randomness. It's fun to test your writing boundaries. I'm just glad I didn't get erotica.

I think my favorite part was the voice I used. There's always a bit of a balancing act with writing dialect, particularly one you're not extremely familiar with. The company I work for has a lot of customers from down south and it's always fun to listen to them talk. One thing you pick up on very quickly is that there's different flavors of "southern".  Georgia is not the same as Alabama is DEFINITELY not the same as Texas which is very different from North Carolina. There are a few I can't identify simply because I can't understand the speaker well enough to ask.

The balancing act comes in with how much of it to use. Use too much, your character becomes the accent and everything turns into a Song of the South-style minstrel show. Not good. Too little and it doesn't feel authentic. You have to be careful of being respectful--I never use accents to mock or stereotype. Or at least I try not to. They're just too cool to listen to.

The book's progressing nicely. That next tarpit of a chapter is over. The chapter coming up next is only 50% old material, so should be more fun to write.

After a while, I just resorted to copy and pasting with only a brief skim through to make sure everything fit. When I added a new paragraph I just did a quick "do I need to foreshadow this earlier?"/"what's the bare minimum I have to do to incorporate the new stuff with the old?" and then slapped a bandaid on it all and hurried on. My mantra for this stuff is "IT'S JUST A ROUGH DRAFT." I'll look at it later. It's way too easy to get paralyzed with editing, especially at this early stage. You wind up just going in circles and agonizing over things that may not even matter in the long run.

Stephen King once wrote that you should never spend more than 3 months on your first draft. I can see where he's coming from. Any longer than that and you're lost in the woods without a compass, making decisions that seem smart from a twenty foot perspective which wind up obviously foolish from a cloud level view. It's better to just push through, let it all out in a steaming nasty mess and then get on with your life.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Princess And The Pea

As per my resolution, this is a short story week to give myself a bit of a break from the novel, which I still find myself working on because I'm banging through rewriting a chapter I've already written, something I find about as entertaining as mixing tar. Luckily, I've gotten through it. The next chapter is another thing like the one I just finished but there's only so many of them before the new outline diverges enough away from what I've already written that I'm breaking new territory. Is that sentence meandering enough? Maybe I should add hyphens and parentheses.

I am very happy to be breaking new territory. It's much easier for me to just burn something to the ground and start (mostly) over than tweak something I've already written. I'm always a little nervous I'm missing something, because I'm not the most detail-oriented person in the world.

Anyhow, this is a short story for one of Chuck Wendig's weekly flash challenges, which are always fun to do. The challenge was to take a fairy tale and then roll a random genre to recast it in. As with any time I roll a random genre, I wind up with "Southern Gothic", which kind of pisses me off, because I don't really know much about the Southern Gothic genre other than it involves swamps, voodoo, brooding horror and Poe. Also, class stratification.

I wound up with this story instead, which is kinda southern but not very gothic. It does have politicians, voodoo and online dating, though.

The Princess And The Pea.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Coffee

Coffee this morning is kind of lousy. The dirty secret of the Chemex is that it's all on you.  All the power is yours. You have command of all the variables. There's nothing for the machine to screw up--if your coffee sucks, the only person you can blame is you. Mr. Coffee has washed his hands of your ineptness. Bunn won't meet your eyes at the bus station. Hamilton Beach is not where you live anymore. Your new god, Mein Fuhrer Chemex, is a harsh god sometimes and takes no prisoners.

In this case, I accidentally ground my coffee too fine. My brain drifted back to the drip coffee days and instead of the course sand my Chemex requires, I gave it a powder. End result: the water took its sweet time percolating, the extraction rate drifted up into geological time frames, and I wound up with a slightly acidic brew.

I might have to invest in a burr grinder eventually, one of those dealies which gives you the option of setting a precise grind rate, metered out by serious women and men in lab coats who calibrate it against an international standard of grindiness. Perhaps there's a French term for it. Somewhere in Switzerland, in an earthquake-proof vault, they have a vial of platinum sand which preserves the International Grind Standard for posterity. There's probably a faction of Germans who plot to replace it with a more universal standard, which measures fineness of coffee grind versus the decay of radioactive polonium atoms in a hard vacuum. They have fierce battles against each other in scientific journals--lives and careers are occasionally ruined. They probably don't make eye contact in cafeterias during awkward moments in line.

But then again, the way my brain works, I'll probably replace my cheap coffee grinder with a hand grinder invented in the 19th century which requires three donkeys and a monkey wrench to operate. The thrust of my life seems to be towards simplicity these days. I fully expect to be Amish before I'm fifty. It's not that I'm a technophobe, it's just that I dislike impermanence and frailty in my non-computer gadgets.

I don't really have this problem with the dark roasts--my current bag of beans are the light variety. It's the kind of bean that coffee merchants have a need to put in pale yellow bags, to show how blonde it is. The implication being that during the roasting process, while the dark roasts get burnt into a cloud of volcanic ash, this particular bag got the health spa treatment. Some dude waved a blow torch in its general direction from several rooms over and called it good.

Whatever. It seems rather finicky--dark roasts are the big happy dogs of the coffee world. No matter how much you suck as a coffee maker, how distracted you are or hamfisted with your equipment, the dark roasts tend to come out fine, if you like that sort of thing. Not so with the pales. Of the three pots I've made so far with this batch, one was great, another was okay and this one was less than okay. Of course, by drip coffee standards, my coffee this morning wasn't so bad. It's just that my frame of reference is all jacked up because I've somehow turned into a coffee snob.

I can't believe I just made this entire post about coffee.

In other news, this is a short story week. I'm going to spend this weekend digging myself out of the hole I'm stalled in with the novel, then write something different, which may or may not wind up on the blog. Or bitch about coffee some more, perhaps.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Balance

I've mentioned before I have a somewhat antagonistic relationship with regards to outlining.

Too little detail, I'm pantsing. I'm not a pantser, really. At least not in the medium to long run. Writing without a plan leads to bloviation. Bloviation leads to pain. Pain leads to, uh, something that hurts. And that leads to moral laxitude, which leads to, fuck, I don't know. Jerry Falwell. And that means hookers. Can't have that. Wait. What was I talking about?

Outlining, right.

With too much detail I get bored because it feels like everything's written out already. When I go to write, I have a strong feeling of "why bother, I'll just have people read the damn outline". Then I go off and play Minecraft. It's all written down, there's nothing to surprise me, it's all a slog.

There were some things which still didn't make sense by Sunday, so I decided to spend some quality time re-outlining. In this case, I moved the outline into meatspace. I grabbed several blank sheets of paper and some markers and sketched everything out by hand until I had a good grasp on how this first section should hang together efficiently.

This is a trick I've used often in the past--sometimes there's absolutely no substitute for the tactile nature of just grabbing a pen and drawing shit out. Actually arranging everything in physical space, drawing lines and arrows...it engages more than one sense and pulls stuff out of your subconscious which would never come out and play if you were banging keys on a laptop. If you have any holes in your structure, they become readily apparent once you've sketched things out.

By the time I finish writing something longer, it often looks like a ticker tape parade had stormed through my working area. I'll have sheets on the floor and every other horizontal surface available to me. If I have whiteboards or chalkboards handy, I'll use those, too. It's the sort of thing that Hollywood directors would use to show I was either a mad scientist or a serial killer. The next scene of the film of my life would probably involve mashed potato sculptures or dead prostitutes.

It works for me (the outlines, not the dead prostitutes). I usually only do it when I'm having a hard time visualizing something or I have to get something done, but I'm not quite sure which approach would be the most efficient. The end result is spectacularly weird when I'm working on a difficult bit of code. With fiction, somewhat less so, unless you actually read some of the words and sentence fragments.

But now I'm finally at the point where I have to transform some of this wreckage into words and because of the level of preparation, it's somewhat frightening and confining. We'll see what happens.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sunday Update The Third

So far, one of the things I'm loving the most about the Chemex--other than its ability to not leak all over the damn place like my old drip brewer and the simple fact I can clean it without using alien technology--is how much there is to tweak in the brewing. Not going to lie here. I bought a thermometer just so I could spot check the brewing temperature. Nerdy? Yes. Anal retentive? Yes. Delicious results? Yes.

It's fun to experiment with the variables, though. Slightly finer grind plus more water? Course grind, less water? More beans, higher brew point? Less bloom, cooler temperature? It's all good. The geekery knows no limits. I'm two steps away from having a mad scientist lab. Before the end of the year, I'll have incorporated dry ice and a Jacob's Ladder into my morning coffee routine. By the end of next year, robots.

I've got a good running start on the novel. Banged out 2000 words yesterday and most of the first chapter. I'll most likely bang out another thousand words or so this afternoon, then call it good. As per the resolution, I'm spending week number four (this week) on writing a story, which I may or may not bother posting.

So far, the only part of my resolution I've failed at is working on money stuff. Think I might drop that part, at least on any sort of stringent schedule. I've just not been feeling it, at least not at that accelerated pace.

I've had no illusions about the first part of the book needing work. It seems like my outline is evolving every time I sit down. I know the various end points. I know what I want to do on the way there. Beyond that, it's remarkably negotiable.

It's good to have a road map. If you don't know where you're going, there's no telling where you'll wind up. In the case of my outline, though, I'm trying to strike a balance. Sometimes my characters refuse to go down the path I've laid for them. In the case of yesterday's writing, I sat down, took a look at the outline and said "wow, that's really dumb" and did something else instead.

Luckily, that's what the outline is there for. It's there to be tweaked. It's a lot easier to tweak half a page of sentences, sentence fragments and words than it is to rewrite, say, half a book because it's not about what you wanted it to be about due to tectonic drift.

What I do need to do, is get back into the swing of writing before work. Even a half hour of banging away is significant progress. I've been getting pretty lazy about only writing on weekends. Time to stop that.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Minimalism

My last alarm clock began to make buzzing noises last weekend, the final waypoint in its death spiral to the big recycling center in the sky. I've had it since 1993. It had survived innumerable moves, being smacked at all ungodly hours of the morning by an ungrateful me as I clawed my way out of sleep. It had seen three presidencies, eight jobs, two wars, several police actions, the dotcom bubble (both of them), the beginning and end of the great recession and the entire career arc of Britney Spears.

But it was time for it to go. It had developed a short across the speaker which resulted in it making a constant low hum, like the kind you imagine that power lines make at night, possibly in a corn field in Kansas. Not perceptible while awake, but very perceptible while sleeping. So I unplugged it and put it away in my closet, where I will run across it in ten years, laugh, then plug it in so I can pretend it's 1997 again. Possibly while listening to a Sugar Ray song while dreaming of girls with Jennifer Aniston hair.

I like to think of myself as relatively minimalist. I don't put things in my life that I don't need or get much value out of because clutter causes stress and unhappiness. If you have more things, you have more things to clean, worry and care about. If you have less things, you can get on with the art of living life.

For example, I live in a relatively small apartment because it's all the apartment I need. I have one car, a lagom amount of furniture, one television, three speakers plugged into it, one laptop, very little redundancy in my kitchenware and so on. Lagom. Not too little, not too much.

For someone in Bangladesh, perhaps, I have a lot of stuff. For an American, I'm virtually a monk.

I experiment with having less because usually I wind up happier because of it. I don't buy low quality goods and I tend to use things as long as I can. Not because I'm cheap or even very frugal, but more because I like having decent quality equipment that's built well. You have a better life experience with good tools and it feels nice not filling up dumps and waste piles with your discarded refuse.

When I unplugged my last alarm clock, I decided to experiment. My cellphone does a fine job with setting an alarm; I'll just use that for a while. Why buy an extra gadget when one of your existing ones does the same thing?

I made it about a week and a half.

As an alarm clock, my cellphone does a fine job. No complaints there. What I found missing, however, was something more subtle: without my alarm clock, I couldn't tell the time at a glance.

Not a big deal, you say. In the 21st century clocks are everywhere. That little widget in your OS's system tray will tell you the time. Click the button on your phone and the display will fulfill every one of your grody little desires. Even your television will tell you the time if you ask it nicely enough.

On top of it all, wouldn't it be nice to not have to meter and parcel out time when you're not at work? Live in a state of timelessness, just being yourself at your own pace. It would be relaxing.

Well, not really. It's the at-a-glance aspect that kept tripping me up. Popping out of the shower to see how long I've been showering. Wondering if I'm late to hang out with some friends. Am I running late for work? How long has that frozen pizza been in the oven? Little bits of worry kept accumulating during the day, but where it really added up and caused me pain was at night.

It turns out I'm a clock watcher when I'm sleeping. A lot. When I roll over at night, I'll apparently crack an eye open for an update. If the time looks good, I'll give a contented sigh, roll over again and go back to sleep. I'm theorizing I do this a lot, so much in fact, that I don't remember most of it when I wake up in the morning.

After eight days I found myself turning into a basket case due to poor sleep. One trip to Target and $10 later, problem solved. Minimalism experiment failed but sleep experience enhanced. Apparently, clocks are important to my mental health.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Storms Of Paper

I'm now in the process of printing out all of the stuff wot I have written before. Since this is isn't precisely an editing round, I'm going single space/double-sided. The somewhat daunting process ahead of me: compressing 33,000 words worth of bloviation into the 15,000 word space I've allotted in my new outline. Actually, less than that. Probably 10,000, because there are some different directions I want to take in this section. Red pen, you are going to be my sexy new friend.

Luckily, my cheap and cheery laserjet printer is loaded and primed for action. If you're going to be writing a lot, accept no substitutes. Inkjets and bubblejets may print a fine photo, but when you're going to be blasting out a cool several hundred pages a month, ink which costs more per dram than the equivalent amount of single malt scotch is not going to be your traveling companion. Give me acceptable print quality and costs per page down in the low single digits any day.

I'm breathing a sigh of relief as I see these pages roll off the press that I'm not actually editing right now. I'm going to come right out and say it: I'm a lousy editor. On a scale ranging from "Absolutely Do Not Give A Fuck" on the left all the way to "Sherlock Holmes Is Horrified By My Meticulous Detail" on the right, I'm probably a two or a three. More fuck, less Sherlock, so to speak.

I've always had a tense relationship with grammar. Half of English grammar seems to be for the convenience of copy editors and the other half is grammar appropriated from other, more civilized, languages and applied wholesale to our own, with no thought for what actually exists or is in use.

English is a strange language. At its root, it's a variant of Old Germanic, full of neat vital words like "knock" and "hill". Every few centuries, it gets infusions from other languages to weird things up a bit. A blast of Church Latin from Christianity here. Some northern words from Viking raiders, such as "lawyer" and "midden," there. The occasional Norman invasion adds in a dollop of French. A constant stream of loan words and constructions arrive from immigrants. The result is rather schizophrenic and a nightmare to describe.

Most of the rules we follow were cooked up wholesale back in the 19th century when the literati really wished, deep down, that English was actually Latin. We were urged to not split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions, in spite of the fact that it's perfectly valid in spoken English to do such things. In Latin, you shouldn't split infinitives, for example, because you CAN'T. Not without making your sentence melt into a goopy mess. In English, it's just fine. To boldly go, and all of that.

At least the more copy-editor-driven grammatical rules make sense. Legibility is a good goal to have. Paragraphs should be about a thing. Sentences should flow properly on a page. Punctuation is your friend because they're the shepherd dogs of words. If your punctuation is all willy-nilly, then your readers may give up in frustration or read your stuff the wrong way.

More formal constructions, though...language was never evolved, specifically, to be written down. To write words down is to kill them, in a sense. Spoken language, when transcribed onto paper, very rarely resembles written dialogue. It's ugly and messy, has terrible flow, too many pauses. There's no spoken way to pronounce a semi-colon, even.

A true grammar of any language would be very difficult to express in words. It would mostly involve statistics and algorithms. At a basic level, any language can convey a certain amount of meaning, no matter how much you mangle it. A real grammar would not output a statement of true/false when asked the question "is this sample correct?" It would output a scale of truthiness instead: "does this sample feel native or authentic? How much? Does it make the speaker sound like a rube?"

Grammar is probably a thing more of mathematics than anything else. It's like spoken DNA--there's probably no set of rules for any given language, only a sliding scale which must take into account where you're from and who you're talking to. It would have to take into account history and context. And the output tells the listener more about the speaker than just what the words are conveying.

And this is why I'm a lousy editor. I tend to negotiate with the page too much instead of having a mental checklist of rules. When I correct punctuation and spelling, I'm mentally more about making things pretty than following any system of logic or checklist of things to look for. I'm not sure if it's for the reasons above or out of general laziness. Probably both.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday Update The Second

Chemex acquired; coffee 100% more awesome. So awesome, in fact, it's a little difficult to get any work done while drinking it. Amazing how much difference clean equipment makes when brewing joe. The old drip machine, like most of its ilk, was very hard to keep fully clean. Run all the vinegar water through it you want and crud still accumulates, affecting the flavor. I think the thing I like most about the Chemex is its simplicity--it cleans just like any other glass vessel. That alone, I think, will have the biggest long term effect. Also, it's cool-looking and the combination between that, the thick filters and the inherent tweakability (that's a word, right...RIGHT?) makes for amazing coffee.

Writing update: I've been letting the plot outline stew over the last week. This afternoon is for tweaking. Make sure there's enough space for Claire's segments, make sure there's the requisite number of twists and turns, room for Cam to die a lot and, most importantly, make sure that each chapter is something crazy enough that I look forward to writing them. Key!

It's a weird stage in the process. Still bright-eyed, full of energy, but there's a bit of tension: you want to dive right in and start banging away, but you also know that you might want to spend a bit more time preparing. You have to balance the two instincts: dive in too soon and start banging away and it's like walking out the door with no pants on, minus the tasering. Unless your editor is very harsh. Don't pay money to those kinds of editors--unless you're a patron of S&M dungeons dealing with struggling novelists ("THE WORD HOLE", "THE WRITE WHIP", "LETTERS OF PAIN").

On the other hand, you don't want to over-prepare. There's a definite point when you're just wasting time. After all, it's only a first draft. It's supposed to suck.

I tend to go to both extremes if I let myself. I either just jump in and start laying about me, like a drunken mall Santa thrashing his way through a Christmas display or I use the act of preparation as a procrastination device. The worst thing about that is that most of my preparation is thrown away, because writing is very much a thing of the moment. Sometimes you don't know what you want or what you can use until you're hammering words home on the page.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Pain

One of the most useful things I learned taking martial arts lessons as a kid was to differentiate between the dozen or so flavors of pain and discomfort.

You learn to place it on a scale in your head, dip your beak into it, swish it around and analyze the complexities like you're a coffee taster or one of those douchey people you always see when visiting a trendy brewery except hopefully sans the tight jeans and beard. You think a bit, spit it out and give the pain a rating:  discomfort, pain, injury. Serious, not serious, call an ambulance? You get the idea.

It's a useful habit to get into, particularly if you're the sort who likes to stay in shape. There's a big difference between an ache which comes from your body's inertia and the sort of ache arising from a developing injury. Discomfort at the most basic level is just resistance to change. Nobody likes change, at least right away. Getting up before the crack of dawn, lacing up tennis shoes and heading out into the cold darkness to get your three miles in isn't something any sane person looks forward to, after all.

Likewise, there are warning signs which it pays to learn and pay attention to. When you're trying a new exercise, you constantly have to ask yourself is this twinge I felt a muscle trying to make up its mind whether or not to tear? Was that creak in my back something I should probably notify a doctor about as soon as I stop throwing up? Or should I just suck it up and stick with it?

It helps to stay at a certain level of disconnect with your body, think of it sometimes as something separate from you. You're driving the bus, but you are not the bus. Not only does it give you a bit of distance and help you more objectively decide whether or not you should be worried about the fact that you just got tunnel vision after maxing out your deadlift or that final set of squats just gave you a nosebleed, but it also helps you tune out a bit during the necessary discomforts of training. The routine aches become more and more routine. You learn to switch off during the discomfort that you've learned over long years of practice aren't anything to worry about, really.

And so it is with pretty much any habit worth picking up. Writing is similar. Nobody wants to get up an hour before dawn every day, cut their morning shower short to make more time before work, drink the black bile of caffeinated death and then pound out two thousand words, all before the city around you wakes up.

You're hunched over your keyboard. The scope of your complete awareness is narrowed down to the flickering line of the cursor as you bang out word after word after word. You've just typed four paragraphs. Are they good? Are they the writerly equivalent of peeing your name in the snow? Who knows!

The moments when you feel good about your writing, the moments when you can tell that you're growing or getting better or doing something worthwhile never quite seem to happen when you're doing the work. They might happen afterwards. Maybe. And they definitely never happen beforehand when you're trying to get your ass out of your nice warm bed or when you're sitting in front of a blank screen.

But at some level, you know it's worth it to plod through the worse parts of the process when that voice at the back of your head tells you to stop and do something else that isn't quite so uncomfortable or scary. And much like that habit of working through pain that you pick up through repeated exercise, you dip your beak into the discomfort, swish it around in your mouth and then spit it out like a coffee-drinking hipster.

Laziness? Need more time to let the writing project brew? Nagging discomfort with where your project is going? Sore fingers, sore back, sore eyes? Feeling stressed out about something unrelated and taking it out on your writing? You become intimate with all the excuses and, hopefully, you push through anyway. And usually, after the first few words on the screen, it gets better. You switch off the inner voice that complains so much, or learn to focus past it and continue on.

Keeping at a bit of a disconnect from yourself is a good thing when doing anything like this. You have good days and bad days. It's more important sometimes just to put the miles in and do work.

Also, my coffee sucks beyond all belief this morning. It's the dregs of the bag, so the beans were all dried out. My coffeemaker seems to sense that I'm through with its quirks, its difficulty to clean and overall leakiness. It's not going down without a final blow, so it apparently decided to make a truly awful pot of coffee. Two and a half Mike-sized cups of poisonous bile. Either that or I'm just feeling really picky this morning

I'm replacing it with a Chemex, which just came in sans filters. Now I'm just waiting for the filters. I went with a Chemex for several reasons: it's got the Wendig stamp of approval for one, but I probably would have gone with it anyway. It's a simple design, which I appreciate as I grow older and more technophobic.

Nothing to break, really. Easy to clean. Excellent coffee, simple to use. I'd considered getting an Aeropress, but thought they looked cheap, plasticky and somewhat harder to clean, even if they are supposed to produce a (slightly) better cup of joe. French presses looked a bit more fiddly and hard to clean. So, Chemex it is.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

It's Almost Like It's January Or Something

There's a peculiar look to the air when temperatures drop into the negative double digits. Everything takes on an unreal tinge, like you're viewing tilt shift photography or peering into a very large, very cold oven. The air is clear and still and looks inhospitable, as if you're looking out on some other planet, a planet where the atmosphere is largely argon, say, or sulfur hexaflouride. Not something you'd want to breathe, that's for sure.

I've never been able to put my finger on exactly what that shimmer is. Maybe it's 50% in my head, maybe it's something inside me reacting to how still it is on days like this. Nothing capable of moving wants to move when it's -12 on the interesting side of zero. Nature abhors a vacuum, they always say, and when it's this cold, you never feel that you're very far from outer space.

You step outside, and a part of your brain simply refuses to let you feel the largest part of the cold. It's like your body tells you "nope, I'm not going to let you feel that. You do whatever you have to do and I'll get along with the business of hypothermia."

It hurts to breathe--even through your nose. A lot of things you take for granted just don't play out the way you expect them to. Water, for example, doesn't want to stay liquid. Your hair freezes, even the tiny ones inside your nostrils.

I've had a lot of time to think about the different kinds of cold, given that I'm from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. You've got wet-cold, dry-cold, "cold rising to more agreeable temperatures with sunshine which makes you feel against all common sense that shorts aren't such a bad idea today" and even cold that only you feel while your friends feel decidedly toasty. There's a billion flavors. Even though Yoopers don't have words for them all, like that fabled myth about the Inuits, you get the sense that maybe they should.

It probably explains why I don't really mention smell much when I'm describing things in prose. For roughly one-half of the year when I grew up, smell was not something you put much weight on. It's not a sensation that exists once the mercury free-falls beyond a certain point--smell is very much a seasonal thing in the Upper Peninsula. If your sinuses aren't packed by February, they're numbed by the cold. If you smell something, you're usually either grateful it's not frozen or you're grateful that you simply can because it means your nose has reached an internal temperature past the melting point of water.

There's nothing quite like a cold snap combined with a pulp fiction binge to lampshade a weakness in your own writing style. I'm having fewer problems with my sinuses now that I have my last two wisdom teeth out--I think one of them was impinging on something inside my nose which was essential to being able to breathe in suboptimal breathing conditions. Whatever it was, I'm clogged up less and noticing smell more. I suppose that's good timing.

The aforementioned pulp fiction was a collection of fantasy short stories by Fritz Leiber. They're quite a bit snappier and more funny than I remembered from the last time I read them, as a child. It's a rather eye-opening experience. There's an economy to the classic pulp writers' fiction you just don't see in fantasy these days. You had a certain amount of pages to tell your story, after all, and you'd better damn well make sure that everything pops. The description is taught, the action crackles and the characterization takes a just-so amount of space. It makes you feel pretty humble reading it. I'd take notes, but I think my pens are all frozen.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Sunday Update The First

I HAVE INVENTED TIME TRAVEL.

No, not the kind with flux capacitors and brushed-steel pseudo-sports cars. Nor the kind involving exotic matter and strange mathematical formulae and hyper-geometries dreamt up by mad Harvard physicists. Or even the variety involving downing six-packs of Natty Light on a Saturday evening and then randomly deciding to toss back tequila shots at three in the morning with your asshole roommate. Whose bathroom is this and why am I wearing a ballerina outfit?

No, I just lost two hours rejiggering the plot of my novel. Wrote down some initial notes, looked up: BLAM, two hours gone in the blink of an eye.

I'm planning on making yet another pass at the outline this coming week before I start digging in for reals: it all still seems somewhat partly-baked, but I think it's going to be worth the polishing. I've ripped everything apart, put it all back together. I've killed the babies, demoted characters who got too major back to the minor league, declared goals and put in way points. Spotted some connections which should be lamp-shaded, ripped some things out which had no business being in this book.

There were plot elements that I felt, as I was writing them, that I was forcing, that didn't quite feel like they belonged. Now I know why.

I now have a much better idea where everything is going and it's going to be really fucking cool.

I went at it keeping the following things in mind:

I'm writing for a fairly strict 3 Act structure. 1/4, 1/2, 1/4 chapter splits. Yes, it seems limiting to spell it out like that. Yes, the final result may vary a bit. Adhering to a structure, however, is good for creativity, paradoxically-speaking. You can travel without a map, but who knows where you'll wind up?

I don't put in a chapter that I don't feel excited about writing.  If I'm not excited writing it, who the hell would be excited to read it? If I have a space which needs a chapter and I absolutely can't slash it out, I resort to the next point:

Bring The Weird.  Summarizing chapters in single sentence format really makes it easier to think of things in the abstract. You get less bogged down in specifics. In this case, I kept pushing myself to rephrase events in less obvious ways.

Sometimes it makes more sense to go with visceral nonsensical imagery. Write down strange things which don't make immediate sense: Claire Becomes A Delicate Flower. What the hell does that mean? I have no idea. I haven't written it yet. Oftentimes you come back to what you wrote and you realize that whatever garbage was brewing in your subconscious makes more sense in the long run than your first initial from-the-gut common-sensical approach.

Or you look at the weird-ass notes you put down as you get to that section and you're like, hah, that's hilarious, but it makes me think of this...which is WAY COOLER. And maybe it is.

The main difficulty I think I'm going to have when I start writing--other than losing steam--as the project wears on, is keeping a balance between the wide view and the narrow. Having this broad outline is going to help quite a bit, I think. I really don't pants long-form prose very well. On the other hand, I'm trying very, very hard not to get too specific either because I want to maintain that element of surprise as I write: my first and foremost audience is myself.

Onward and downward.  Next update: Tuesday.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Resolve, Resolving, Resolute...?

...and here it is.  A new year, shiny, evenly divisible by 2, 19 and 53, just the way that all the best years should be. It's that dreaded thing today, something everybody's doing: resolution talk. Because that's what all the popular kids are doing besides hanging out behind the cafeteria, smoking Lucky Strikes and talking about boys/girls/cars/postmodern literature. Or postmodern literature about boys, girls and cars.

After a number of reasonably successful resolutions, I think I know a few things about making them and a few things about why so many people tend to fuck them up. The success rate for resolutions, particularly of the January 1 variety, tends to be pretty dismal.

There's a science to making resolutions you'll actually follow. Here's how you do it.

Step 0.  Don't do it unless you actually mean it. Take some time and ask yourself some serious questions: are you making this resolution because it sounds nice, or because people expect you to do it? Do you have a personal stake in the outcome?

Unless you want something at a very fundamental level or have some very specific end goal in sight you are probably going to stall out after a month or two. Be honest with yourself now before you waste your time doing something you probably won't stick with.

It's fine to want to lose weight, for example, or quit smoking or stop being an asshole, but if the only reason you're doing it is just so you can have a resolution to be following or because you have a vague notion of "wouldn't it be nice if..." you're probably gonna crater some time in early March. And, having failed at this year's resolution, the next year's is going to be that much easier to fuck up.

Okay, with the obligatory tough love out of the way, lets assume you either ignored Step 0 or are pretty serious about the whole thing. You actually want to get that novel done or give up smoking meth. Or write that novel about giving up smoking meth. You'll want to...

Step 1.  Assess your support network. There are two schools of thought here, and it's really all about your social network and its history with resolutions.

The first school of thought is that you should tell EVERYBODY you're doing something. This way, there's a certain amount of accountability. If you're cramming pie into your face, your friends are probably going to wonder why. This is fine if your social network isn't the sort that has a big history of people who make a big deal of following resolutions.

For example, earlier this year, when I resolved to drink less, I told everybody I was going to do it. Not many of my friends make resolutions, especially of this sort, so it was enough of a novelty that I knew that fucking up would get commented on. This was a key factor in sticking with it. End result? Success.

HOWEVER. A lot of times you get just as much of a rush telling people you're following a resolution as you do actually achieving it. Perhaps even more so. If your social network has a ton of people doing resolutions, particularly of the sort you're planning on doing right now, and they tend to be supportive in all the wrong ways, you might have a better chance with keeping your yap shut.

This is how I went with my writing resolution and it was successful. I don't think I would have had such an easy time sticking with it if I had people constantly asking me how it was going or complimenting me on my progress. I tapped into my angry loner streak to get things done.

Step 2. Get specific.

That's it, really. A good resolution is achievable. Six-pack abs is a terrible resolution if you're currently forty or fifty pounds overweight. Can you achieve your goal within a realistic amount of time without driving yourself bonkers? No? Scale back.

Play around with the wording of your resolution. Try breaking it into smaller bits just to see what they look like. Even if you think you can do it as is, try making it more limited anyway just to see what it looks like.

A good resolution goal is specific and measurable. It has milestones built in. Lose twenty pounds, for example, is a great goal because it's a realistic number--most people can lose twenty pounds in a few months, maybe quicker. Twenty pounds has milestones built right in. Every five pounds or so you can celebrate a little, pat yourself on the back. If you get done with your resolution while you still don't completely hate the process, you can make another specific achievable one then. For now, limit your scope.

Step 3. Low-ball your energy levels when setting goals and milestones.

Willpower is a limited resource, no matter how awesome you are. Winters are long, energy levels will flag. You will, in the middle of the race, begin to question your resolve. Don't just assume you're going to keep the same bright-eyed enthusiasm you have right now.

In light of this...

Step 4.  Release valves!

Assume you're going to fuck up. You will want that cake. You'll get sick of your writing project. You'll want to have a beer or say something mean to someone. It happens, you're human. Failing is just as much a kind of progress as winning. You're going to fuck up and if you stick with things, you're going to learn from those fuck ups.

Set up specific ways during the resolution you can blow off steam.

When dieting, it's common to throw in cheat meals throughout the week. This lets you eat the things you've been craving without derailing your diet. For example, you let yourself have two cookies on Monday so you're not craving cookies all week. If you don't throw in cheats, eventually you'll snap and eat an entire bag of Oreos.

Recognize that, over the course of months, you will go off track and plan for it. You might not need to resort to the release valve, but it should be there in case you need it.

Example: in my resolution to write something every week, I gave myself the ability to take a mulligan that week. I also was vague enough that I could half-ass a week every once in a while with flash fiction.

Another example: When I gave up most of my drinking, I gave myself very specific circumstances in which I could have a drink or two if I needed it. It helps. A lot. I don't always resort to them, but they're there so long as I don't overdo them.

Step 5. Consequences.

Consider some kind of penalty in case you go off track.

A good penalty can't be so dire that you'll go offtrack and then not do the penalty because it's just too harsh, but it has to be enough that you'll think twice about screwing up. For example, set up a swear jar. Donate enough money to charity every week you screw up that it's a hit to your finances without crippling you. Tell a friend to make a mocking limerick about you on Facebook if they see you going off the rails. Or, as in the case of my drinking, screwing up itself is enough of a penalty in its own right to make for reasonable consequences. I hate hangovers more than anything in the world, including mimes, so having a hangover is a pretty large stick to get thwacked with.

Step 6. Don't do it.

Consider not doing it the first of the year. Resolutions are good any time and, if you do them in July, people are shocked enough to pay attention/hold you to it more.

Everybody makes resolutions at the beginning of January. So many in fact, it's kind of a given that nobody will follow them. If you are absolutely set on doing this right now, consider not telling anyone about it, at least not until a few months have passed. Use other resolutioners, the sorts who aren't kicking all sorts of ass because they've followed my advice above, as motivation. When one of them flames out, smile, and then hold your course.

Or just wait a few months when the environment isn't quite so toxic to resolutions and the weather's nicer.

And now here's mine. It's not really a resolution so much as a battle plan:

I'm switching up my blog routine. Sunday/Tues/Thur, probably. I won't be posting stories every week or doing formal status updates. Updates will probably stay writing-oriented because as a writer I love to talk about writer. We are narcissistic beasts, after all.

I'll be doing the following, work-wise:

Resolution 1:

3 weeks, work on the novel. Either productive outline work or a couple of chapters each week (or more). This week, for example, will just be gathering notes and getting a good nutshell summary of my book together.

Resolution 2:

Every fourth week, a short story. Can't give these up.

Resolution 3:

I'm going to do something every week which would result in making money from my writing. My goal is, by summer at the latest, to have some sort of regular side-income from my writing. I have a strategy. I will only go into it if it works however because then I can gloss over all the fuck-ups and say I intended it to work out that way all along.

There you have it. The Billion Monkeys Guide To Resolutions.

Crap, now I have to change up my header and about block. Ah, well. Sacrifices.