Sunday, March 30, 2014

Cleaning Out The Trash

Buckle up, motherfuckers. This is going to be a long and meandering ride.

Woke up this morning, chasing the last shreds of a dream. As is usually the case, the fragments didn't make much sense: perambulations and coffee, quirky friends and drum-heavy world music. What little I remembered, as I sipped my morning cup of awesome-sauce blacker-than-black joe, reminded me an awful lot of Northern Exposure, probably one of my favorite television shows of all time.

Northern Exposure was a case of right show at the right time for teenaged-Mike. At the time it began to air, I was wrapping up high school. I was a bundle of nerves about life in general, unsure of what I wanted to do in life, unsure that I could even survive outside the protection of my parents. Northern Exposure was adult and quirky in the way that I so desperately wanted to be. I have fond memories of it. Oddball characters, offbeat humor. Everything about it was cool in that way that the 90's could be cool sometimes. It was the 90's in the way that the 90's wanted to see itself.

I still think of it as hip and up-to-date, an example of what television should be. Edgy, current and HOLY SHIT, that was twenty-five years ago!

It led me down a trail of weird math.

For example. Woodstock was in 1969. The first Lollapalooza was 1991. It's now 2014. The time between the first Lollapalooza and Woodstock was 22 years. The time between now and the first Lollapalooza? 23 years. I have a hard time making the mental jump between the two cultural periods.

After all, the 60's? We're talking Martin Luther King, women's suffrage, moon landings, the Vietnam War, the first televised kiss between a white man and a black woman on TV, all that stuff.

Between now and the early 90's? Not much seems to have changed. The Internet, maybe. Certainly not as extreme a jump as going from 1991 to 1969.

And yet, it HAS. Times have very much changed since then. All kinds of cultural progress has happened. Computers have drastically restructured society. I can, right now, call a friend on the other side of the planet asking what the weather's like. He'll tell me, then text me a photo. And that's not even the tenth most futuristic (from 1991's perspective) thing I've done this morning. Shit, I'd need at least ten minutes to explain to teen-Mike what I even do for a living ("Uh, I'm a computer programmer. Kind of").

In spite of all sorts of moaning and bitching and disclaimers and arguments that we're still as culturally backwards as we were back in, say, 1955, we have a black President. Gay marriage is legal in many states, all sorts of barriers have been knocked down since then. Hell, you can buy weed legally in a lot of places. Nobody really bats an eye at mixed-race relationships anymore. Try all of that in 1991.

And yet, at the same time, I think of 1991 as pretty much the same as now. Maybe it is.

The thing is, life is FULL of these situations where you'll stop and realize how far you've gone.

You have to update your mental baggage every once in a while.

If you don't, reality is going to whack you in the head with a fucking shovel. You can't afford to be lazy about anything: humor, social assumptions, whatever.

If you don't believe me, head over to Youtube and pull up a stand-up comic routine from, say, 1989. Go ahead, do it. The edgier the comic the better.

You're going to see a lot of jokes that just aren't funny anymore. Do you remember wife-beating jokes? They used to be awesome. You'd ask a friend, "Have you stopped beating your wife yet, Ray?" as an icebreaker, a kind of ridiculous question playing off how Ray is probably a pretty nice guy with a pleasant wife. Not the sort of guy who'd beat his wife. Nope.

Or you'd have jokes about queer stereotypes. Eddie Murphy, for example. About a quarter of "Raw" tends to go over like a lead boat anchor these days. A lot of it is still pretty genius, though.

The list goes on. Culture drifts, gets better in some ways, gets worse in others.

But if you don't recognize that, reset your brain every once in a while, you're going to get in trouble, you're going to be the guy in 2014 who's making clueless jokes about trans-folks or writing fiction where characters still use cigarette-smoking as a placeholder action (unironically). And that's not particularly cool.

I've changed a lot since 1991. I can still enjoy the things I enjoyed then, but I'm a different person living in different times. Nostalgia's a great thing, so long as you recognize it for what it is and clean out the closets every once in awhile.

And holy shit, this is one of the posts I never thought I'd get to. It kind of snuck up on me, honestly. Three paragraphs in and I'm like "hey, this sounds kinda familiar."

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Time Management And Other Things Kid-Mike Wrongfully Thought Would Be Boring.

And I'm back in the groove again. Only a little ways into Act II, but I can already feel myself settling in. The dialogue between the characters is snappy, I have a good idea where I'm going with all this bullshit. I tossed in some foreshadowing. I've tightened up the outline, spit-shined some of the plot flow. I also polished away some of the dangerous curves ahead--the pacing, just from the outline alone--looks more interesting.

Is the book better for the time off? Yeah, I think so. More importantly, I think it'll improve my writing pace over the next month.

It's exciting.

A lot of the progress is because I've spent quite a bit of time over the last year thinking about Pareto's Law, the idea that 80% of your results comes from 20% of your input.

It's one of those things which would have bored me silly as a kid, like personal finance. It takes time and perspective to see the subject as exciting or even useful.

After all, mostly it's all about trimming crap out of and/or readjusting your schedule. What kid has anything like a schedule? Back when I was a teenager, my "schedule" was me waking up, getting my ass pushed onto the school bus and then coming home. I had little control over it nor did I have any sort of sense of what you'd call "wasted time". I'd joke about wasting time, but it never had the same sort of palpable feel as wasted time does as an adult.

As an adult, I'm very keenly aware of what I want out of life. I want to finish this damn book. I want to do interesting things at work, help my coworkers out with interesting apps or knock projects I've been putting off out of the park. I want to finish books I read, hang out with friends, get my exercise in. I want to have time to go outside and feel the sun on my hair, the wind on my face. I want to travel, do all sorts of things. I even want to get enough rest in, get enough down-time so I can recharge my batteries and face all the bullshit I have to or want to do with a completely relaxed air.

All of these things are achievable, given enough motivation, effort and money. Despite what people might say, motivation, effort and money are all effectively limitless resources. You can cut costs, you can economize, you can refuse to spend your income on shit you don't care about. You can work side jobs, get raises, rob banks, sell spare body parts, whatever. Money's out there.

What you don't have enough of to do everything is TIME. As a kid, when everything was new and you had nothing to lose, no responsibilities whatsoever, time was everywhere. Asking a kid his opinion on time management is a lot like asking a Bedouin the most efficient way to build a sand castle. It's ridiculous.

As an adult, I know that time flows only in one direction. If I spend five seconds, those are five seconds I will never get back. So I want to make sure I'm using those five seconds effectively. Not productively--effectively. More on that in a second.

80% of your results come from 20% of your effort. Maybe those numbers are actually 10%/90% or 30%/70%, but you get the idea. Figure out the shit you care about, then do everything in your power to reduce or minimize the shit you don't care about.

I want to write, so I make sure I have more time to write. I want to do more interesting programming at work, so I aggressively make sure I have less time-wasting grunt work to do, whether by making it Somebody Else's Problem, automating it, or figuring out a way to make it a moot point.

When I set up my work schedule these days, I make sure I get all of my programming scheduled in during the time of the day when I'm the most awake. If I have repetitive stuff to do, things which don't require much focus or creativity, like checking email or the occasional unavoidable data entry, I make sure to do it all at once at either the beginning or the end of the day...and preferably at the end, because the ticking deadline that is the end of the work day does a great job at keeping my attention focused on grinding through the necessary tedium. It sounds simple, but it works.

What do you with all the time you clear up? I'm a big fan of down-time. The brain isn't really designed to just go full blast all the time. You need to decompress. Ideally, I'd have long periods of time in my day when I don't do much of anything except exist, walk and read. It doesn't often work out like that, but it's fun to think about.

There's this poisonous culture in modern life of always having to "be productive", even at the expense of efficiency. If you tell someone you can do 100% of your work in 40% of the time, they'll ask you what you're doing with the 60% of time you just cleared up. They'll cluck their tongue at you and judge you, maybe look at you like you're pretty weird.

If they do the same thing themselves, they'll spend the rest of that time shuffling paperwork or rushing about  the place looking busy because nobody wants to be perceived as lazy. It's this weird Puritan work ethic that corporate culture fosters. You're being paid, so you better keep moving, damn it.

And of course, at the end of the day, you're exhausted if you live like that. You miss all the good weather. You're too tired to do anything but sit in front of the TV because you've wasted half the day doing tedious shit nobody cares about, least of all you. You go to bed tired, you don't sleep well and then you wake up for more of the same. It's this constant treadmill which does nothing but eat your life-energy and spits it back out again as a stream of bullshit.

That's why Pareto's Law is so great. Clear out the shit in your life you don't care about, what doesn't excite you and maximize the shit that does. If you clear enough pointless bullshit out, you spend the time in which you're not doing awesome things to rest up and be yourself. You recharge your batteries so the next round of awesome things you do will be even more awesome. Simple.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Flash Fiction: Don't Forget The Milk

This week's Wendig challenge was too fun to pass up. 1000 words, 10 chapters. WTF?

I was going to pass and just write something random this week. Too hard. Too many sections for a piece that short. Pass. Then it hit me while I was taking my morning shower: you know what else has lots of tiny little chapters?

Choose Your Own Adventures.

Hence, "Don't Forget The Milk."

As it turns out, writing Choose Your Own Adventures is REALLY FUCKING HARD. Went 300 words over but not inclined to trim anything because it would kill the flow of the game.

Read: Don't Forget The Milk

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Gears

One of the dangers, I'm discovering, of posting blog updates after work as opposed to before is there's this whole issue of switching gears.

When I wake up, I have nothing to compare my mental state to besides sleep. Sleep is usually a neutral activity for me. When I wake up, I'm mostly at a blank slate, barring hangovers, illness, shouty neighbors or the like. I sit down with a big damn mug of coffee and fire away, fresh, with no preconceptions or biases.

Not so after work. It's a little hard to sit here and not rave about whatever the hell has been on my mind all day. If I were even 23.7% more of the sort of person who'd brood about work-stuff at home, I'd do just that.

Luckily, I have two things going for me. One, I compartmentalize like a champ. Once the time for doing activity x is done, I move on to activity y. Back in the worst professional periods of my life, it was a skill I developed so I could actually sleep and enjoy free time. Very handy. I don't really need it these days as much because I've aggressively crushed most things which could stress me, but still. It's there if I need it.

The other thing which occasionally makes it hard to change gears is also one of those hobgoblins which tend to haunt me at parties: namely, I code for a living, but write for fun. I have a master's degree in English but program for my day job. Whenever it comes up at a social occasion, I always get the same damn question:

"Why aren't you writing professionally instead of doing computer stuff? I mean, you don't even have a degree in computer stuff. Also, stop humping my leg."

That's a very good question. No, I will not stop humping your leg.

I don't really see writing and writing code as particularly different. They use the same creative sections of my brain. The parts of my brain engaged in composition and choosing words are also firing away when I structure code.

When I program something, I get the same sense of validation I get when I write an essay or a story or a dirty limerick (well, the dirty limerick feeling is only when I have to do something in Perl).

In fact, writing a program really isn't far different in terms of what you need to do than writing instructions for a very literal and kind of stupid audience. I'm convinced, if you walk into a room full of programmers, you'll probably find a higher representation of talented writers, or at least gifted amateurs, than you would in any other profession save for possibly professional wrestlers.* And in the heart of every poet lies someone you could probably train to code, if you used a shock collar and large enough stick.

I find that going from writing in the morning to programming at work is a very natural progression. One serves as a decent warm-up for the other. The downside is, since it's more of the same type of brain-sweat, I tend to lose steam pretty fast mid-afternoon. Luckily, that's why God gives you busy-work, inescapable in just about any profession you'd care to name. I'm fairly sure if you followed Gandalf around, you'd find him bugging out mid-afternoon to fill out a stack of forms.

Still, it's a little hard not to post blog entries in Javascript or Ruby at the end of the day. Probably for much the same reason I have to remind myself not to name all my variables, classes and methods after demons.

* Yes, there's a story behind that choice of words.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Milestones

Hot shit, the first act is done, for a cool total of roughly 45,000 words. That's...more than I strictly intended. I was shooting for roughly 80,000 for the whole book. What I've got outlined for Act II is roughly twice the amount of things I covered in Act I. I suspect the next few drafts are going to be a drunken orgy of chapter combining, cold and ruthless trimming and some serious shit-kicking. Until then, I'm plowing through, just writing the story as it comes out and trying not to get hung up too much on pointless statistics like that. Yet.

Still, it ended strongly. Much more strongly than I thought it would be. The final chapter in that section is some of the best writing I've done in quite a while. It was one of those cases where I combined three separate chapters in my previous draft into one and, when I hit the final period, it just fell together. It was a feeling much like the one you get when you're folding your laundry, you pick up a shirt and shake it into place, all the wrinkles coming out almost by magic. In the rough-rough draft, it was almost a throwaway chapter, just some pointless trippy explication to get the reader through to the next section. Now, not so much.

There is one moment in particular I hadn't planned on becoming quite so central to Cam's character development. In the outline, it was half a sentence and I was seriously considering skipping that section and then getting on with the transition to Act II. Instead I blew it up into a paragraph and it turned itself into one of those moments which are half cathartic punchline, half significant character arc. I suspect if this damn thing ever gets published, it's one of the things people will talk about when they refer to the book: "Hey, guys, you remember the bit where Cam flips off the giant caterpillar and it eats him?"

It feels good to be through this section. I'm going to spend a couple of quality days re-outlining Act II before I dive in, make sure it does what I think it should do. Since much of it takes place during and a bit before the events in Act I due to a sudden outbreak of time-travel, I have to be kind of careful about continuity. Luckily, as a writer, you have the luxury of going back and changing things to make it look like you're a much careful planner and thinker than you really are. When you're God, you have a nigh-infinite ability to stack the deck in your universe.

Anyhow. Onwards and downwards. Not the most meaty blog update I've had in the last few weeks. Nary a word about coffee, no random bloviation about life, but it feels good to post about milestones. I think this week is another story week. I'll have to think about what to write. I feel pretty bad about stranding Bo and his new rat friend in the dungeons of the Taco Lord so I might get back to them, unless something more random comes to mind.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Reheated Leftovers

There's nothing quite like the feeling you get when you decide to scrap a chapter, rewrite it from scratch and then, looking for ideas, you read the chapter you'd originally decided didn't work. And then you realize there's quite a bit of good writing there in amongst all the things which didn't work out the first time through. Crap!

So you try to work them in even though you're not entirely sure they fit, partly for efficiency's sake, partly because you always have that nagging feeling deep down inside that once you give birth to something clever you're never going to be able to top it. You think creativity's a finite resource. That once you write something down, if you don't immediately use it, it'll go away like it's Texas crude being shoved through a fleet of diesel trucks or something.

Or, as in my case, you're kind of a lazy bastard and easily amused by your own sense of humor. Hey, I'm not above laughing at my own jokes.

But you try to wedge these bits and pieces in, hoping they work out and you don't forget to rename something or overlook some heinous continuity error which will reveal you for the lazy son of a bitch you are.

Between the time I wrote the two chapters, I decided to rename the villain so he wasn't a reference to an in-joke my friends commonly use. I also decided to kill off a character who had a prominent habit of showing up in the text I wanted to steal from myself. Oops. I also had a much better idea of what was going to go on in Act II and wound up having to foreshadow a great deal of things I didn't in the first draft. So, yeah, lots of shoehorning happening there.

My experiment in time management went swimmingly well, however. I'm at my best early in the morning when there are no distractions. It's dark outside (or just becoming sunny), the world is quiet, nobody's interrupting me, I'm fresh and alert and I can drink a pot or two of coffee without fear of being up until four in the morning.

Pareto's Law in action: 80% of your productivity comes from 20% of your effort. If you do your best work in the morning, logic suggests you'd better damn well overclock your morning. I've got a Chrome extension set to block any web site which might distract me. No music, no distractions, no social media, news feeds or transdimensional monkey-porn...just me and my laptop. I've even started getting up about twenty minutes earlier to maximize this window of time. Of course, then I have to make excuses at work about why I tend to conk out at two in the afternoon. I suspect it'll be easier in sunnier weather when I can go outside and nap during my breaks. If you fall asleep at your desk, that's a problem. If you fall asleep on the patio, with your smartphone nearby, people applaud your energy-management skills. People are weird.

I can blog pretty much at any time. Kick me in the shins, a blog entry will fall out of one ear. Blogging is easy, even when I'm using my posts to tell a story. Actual fiction, though? We're talking kind of a narrow window here. If I wrote fiction right after work or getting back from the gym, it would probably be pretty dire, because I'm tired and got other things on my mind.

So, optimization, that's where it's at. I've been averaging about 1200-1500 words per day, which is pretty damn good for me, considering it's in a relatively narrow window of time before work. I'm hoping to get that up to around 2k, decent quality, not word dumping. We'll see how this goes.

More Changes

The Thursday morning update is now going to be a Thursday evening update.

This is because Thursday morning lies right smack-dab in the middle of productivity central. I'm trying to maximize my awake-before-work time to use for writing fiction. Blog posts? I can bust those out any time. Which I do.

This is a fine example of Pareto's Law in action.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Subdivisions

I'm always a little amused at the difference between the way you think about writing stories versus the way they actually get done when you're sitting down and banging out words. Particularly when you've been at one for a while and just want to get through milestones.

It's all making sausage after a point. You dig in and make a big nasty mess. It squelches a lot, there's tiny greasy little bits you don't want to think about and...something happens. You're not sure what it is, and you don't want to root around inside what's coming out of the other end of the machine for fear that you'll lose your stomach for it. There's definitely verbiage on your hard drive and it makes you uneasy to look at it. You go back and redraft it, package it up neatly and very deliberately don't think about what's inside that slick exterior.

When someone compliments you on it, you just say it was all sunshine and inspiration. An elf rode up on a unicorn and delivered your manuscript to you straight from Castle Glitter in Happy Unicorn Butterfly Land. That's right, that's exactly how it all went down.

In my case, I had to split a chapter into two. While I don't have any sort of set notion of how long a chapter should be, my gut tells me it shouldn't be outside of four digits. When you're pushing into five, that's novella territory and really trying the reader's patience. So I did it. Had to split my outline up a bit. It felt weird.

I'm a little paranoid about going off the rails because I don't really want to make a hobby out of discarding novels. So I turned the crank and hopefully it'll work out for the better.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What Running Dungeons & Dragons Taught Me About Teaching

I used to teach English back when I was a relative tyke. This is the part of the conversation where a lot of people look at me and have one of several reactions: boredom, for one. I'm going to ignore that one, because on the Internet everything is way more awesome than it is in reality. Another type of person asks me why I'm in IT when my background is in lit (short answer: it sucks and doesn't pay well). And yet another type just gets really impressed and then asks me to edit their Great American Novel about intelligent cats who fight crime on Mars. Best. Novels. Ever.

Anywho.

I was lousy at it. I hated teaching writing and it showed. But more than that, the way the program was set up at my university, you'd enter grad school and they would immediately throw you into teaching freshman comp. And it wasn't over any concern over training or anything, it was more that they couldn't get any of the real professors to volunteer to teach it. So there I am, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and 22 years old, trying to show kids who are only three years younger than me how to write when I've barely just learned myself.

It was awful and so was I. I got better, slightly, but only by accident. These days, I could probably do it, no problem, but I was, at best, an indifferent teacher then. A more realistic description would be "wildly incompetent." I'm glad those were in the days before online student reviews because mine would be savage and brutal, much like the IMDB commentary for "Battlefield Earth."

I've avoided teaching since then for the same reason that fresh out of the field Vietnam vets avoided Civil War reenactments.

Until recently. I had to teach some coworkers how to use a new program last week. And it was actually pretty fun. They had a good time and they left the room as fired up about using the thing as you can be in a corporate environment.

Afterwards, I found myself mulling over what the difference was. It could be that I'm older and much more socially-grounded than I was in my 20's. I'm pretty sociable these days, as far as that goes. It could be the specificity of what I was talking about: "here's the program folks, lets go over how to use it" versus "tell these heathen bastards how to write! Good luck, bye, don't get your ass killed! *door slams shut and locks*"

But I think it's because I've been spending a lot more time over the last few years running Dungeons & Dragons (disclaimer for nerds who care: not just D&D specifically, but several other game systems, including Marvel FASERIP, Call of Cthulhu, White Wolf and AD&D 1e).

There are two different types of gaming groups you can have, I've found. You have people who want information fed to them and then you have assholes. The first type don't do much of anything and are fairly predictable--they consume whatever game you're attempting to run passively, taking cues and making rolls as directed. If there's a sign for the next dungeon, they're mostly content to follow the arrow to get there and then they go through the maze in a logical fashion, hitting the expected goals and doing the expected things. Nothing wrong with that at all.

The other type will look at the sign, laugh heartily and then go off in a perpendicular direction. They have an innate ability to see where the railroad tracks are and avoid them. If they see you've spent hours of prep, they will do their utmost to invalidate it.

You can guess which one my group is.

It's great practice as far as storytelling goes because you never can tell what your players will do. You might expect to run a nice session about fighting Dr. Dreadful through the streets of New York, but you'll get home three hours later after the players decide to befriend Dr. Dreadful, run for public office in New Jersey, get elected and start using public funds to build a rocket ship.

I've learned a few things from it. When I prepare for a session, I tend to only do a few things.

I come up with basic NPC's and the premise for the session.
I come up with a few set pieces that I might want to use. Fighting winged demons on top of a speeding train for example (and usually no more detailed than what I've just written down here).
I come up with a few ideas for weird directions the story might go and things about the characters to riff on, as a contingency, but with the full expectation that they won't get used.
And I try to have a broad idea about what cliffhanger I want the session to end on.

The less prepared I am, the better the game usually goes.

When I'm actually running the game, I tend to listen very closely to what the players are saying and doing and then riff off of that. A lot of my best ideas are basically from me saying "Yes, that happens, but..." or "No, you don't quite manage it, and while that's happening..."

I'm also not shy about telling them I'm stumped and either asking for a time-out or polling the group for ideas on what happens next. Sometimes, when I'm really stumped or tired, I'll even pass the GM hat to one of the players for a scene while I regroup. It works surprisingly well: players get a real sense of agency when they have that level of control over the game.

So, after a few years of DM'ing like that, teaching a class was relatively easy. I made a very broad outline of what I wanted to cover. I jotted down the points I wanted to get to and where I wanted to wind up. And then I ripped up my notes and winged it. When I got stuck, I'd just throw questions at the students and let them direct where I went.

D&D. Teaching clueless people how to deal with groups of equally clueless people since 1974.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Momentum

This time of year is like the final ten pages in Act II in a survival horror movie's screenplay. Everyone's hollow-eyed and going through the motions from rote memory. You just want the winter to be over. Even machines have that certain sense of "just...one...more...week". Every time I turn my Honda's ignition over in negative single digit weather, the sound the engine makes when it starts up sounds like "...really?"

If you get hit by a blizzard in, say, December, it's fun and interesting. You fire up the hot cocoa and watch movies. It's almost like a holiday, even if you don't actually get the day off from work. Colds and flues, while miserable, have that same sense. It's a day off, albeit for lousy reasons--it's change. Something different. It's a sign the seasons roll along, life goes on and everything is as it should be. By March, it's all beating dead equines. I haven't even bothered bundling up lately before going out in bad weather because, hell, I just don't care anymore. Defrost me in spring.

On the other hand, my coffee mastery continues to improve apace. So there's that. By the time summer rolls around, I'll pour a pot of coffee and fucking rainbows and unicorns will spill out of my Chemex.

Work on the novel can be characterized as slow and steady, which is better than sporadic but occasionally fast. I'm just at the verge of writing the big plot point at the end of Act I. More specifically, I'm at the verge of rewriting the first major plot point, because there were elements in the first go that I thought could have been better.

The next bit after that will probably go pretty quick and then it's on into the novel's really bizarre Act II, where things weird up significantly. It goes from Dresden Files to...Roger Zelazny, perhaps. It's going to be pretty odd. I'm looking forward to it--it'll be a significant challenge to write. I'm curious to see what kind of momentum it'll build.