06/9/18

VLOG #1 – My Writer’s Journey

I’ve made a VLOG!

My respect for people that do this sort of thing regularly has increased by an order of magnitude.  This was not easy.

As I state in the video, I wanted to celebrate my 1,000 Twitter follower milestone by creating my first VLOG.  I’ve thought about doing it for years but didn’t really see much point in it.  I’m much more eloquent in text.  However, after some friends posted videos of their own, they encouraged me to do this.  Now, for better or worse, it is done.

There’s stuttering in the video because I tried editing out most of the “uhms.” I didn’t eliminate all of them, but to put this into perspective, I recorded about 5:40 worth of video and edited it down to 5:13.  That’s a lot of awkward pauses.

I made the decision to make the VLOG about a week and a half ago.  Since then, I downloaded some software, recorded some test footage, and finally wrote my “script.” When I woke up this morning, I decided today would be the best day to make the recording.  With beautiful, cool weather to support my decision, it just made sense to go outside and find a quiet place with natural lighting.

The weather behaved, but the rest of the world conspired against me.  I walked to the sleepy little park in my neighborhood thinking that I’d find a bench and record the raw footage there.  As soon as I opened my laptop, a truck turned the corner and rumbled down the street hauling a cement mixer.  It parked less than 100 feet from where I planned on doing the recording.  The mixer churned and growled like bottled thunder.  Then one of my neighbors started drilling.  When a handful of friendly dog walkers showed up and started chatting at and around me, I decided I’d move on.

I visited two other parks before walking home and making the recording in my backyard.  I think it worked out.  If I do another one, I’ll start at home.  Maybe I’ll put up something to block some of the wind noise.

Chris lent me his fancy Snowball microphone which helped improve the “production value.” After a couple of hours spent editing and migrating the files to a place where I could upload to YouTube, I feel like it is finally finished and I can relax.  Maybe even get back to writing.

If you enjoyed this, let me know and I’ll see about making another!

05/2/18

The Last Jedi, Ready Player One, and Infinity War

It’s been a while, but I’m still here!

Recently, I mentioned to some friends and acquaintances that I really liked The Last Jedi.  I received some light abrasions for my unpopular opinion, but that led me to the realization that I have a lot to say about a handful of recent movies.  Tonight, I’m taking a break from my working on my current novel to talk in depth about The Last Jedi, Ready Player One, and Avengers: Infinity War.  I’m going to get into spoilers for all three movies, so if you haven’t seen them and you don’t want anything spoiled, this is your warning.

Last chance.  Beyond this point, there will be spoilers.

 

The Last Jedi

It’s been long enough that I don’t believe I have much new to contribute to the conversation about this controversial movie, other than my own experiences.  I’m a long term Star Wars fan.  One of my oldest memories involves laying in the back of a car at the drive-in while the original Star Wars played.  I was young enough that the only thing I can remember from that viewing was that the stormtroopers were scary.

I saw The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in the theater.  I remember those movies.  They were bigger than life!  They captured my imagination and expanded what I thought was possible.  The original trilogy became a permanent part of my life, just as they became a permanent part of our culture.

Based on that, it would be easy to assume that as a Star Wars fan, I have an unlimited amount of forgiveness for the movies that came after the original trilogy.  The prequels proved that assumption wrong.  Certainly at first, I looked for ways to justify The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.  I wanted those movies to be great.  But they weren’t.

Star Wars movies are flawed.  All of them are.  I expect a certain level of campiness, and maybe a few plot holes large enough to fly an X-Wing through.  That’s part of the experience.  The prequels weren’t that.

Rather than bash on the prequels, let me spell out as succinctly as I can what a Star Wars movie should be.  A Star Wars movie should be a larger than life adventure that touches both the technological and the mystical while centering around a band of heroes that care for each other.

Using that idea as my guide, when I look at the original trilogy, I see Han, Luke, Leia, Lando, Artoo, and Threepio as people that I care for, and that care for each other.  The Force is mystical and mysterious and supernatural.  I care most about the original trilogy because I have a strong emotional connection with the characters, above and beyond the spectacle of the special effects.

The prequels don’t do so well under that kind of scrutiny.  There is little chemistry between the main characters, and many of them are not only unlikable, they’re unrelatable.  The prequels attempted to make The Force quantifiable, measured in microscopic organisms.  Here’s a question: if midichlorians exist in the blood and give a person Force ability, wouldn’t Anakin get less powerful as he becomes more and more machine?  Shouldn’t Darth Vader be weak once he becomes more machine than man, twisted and evil?

I think I’ve said enough about my background with Star Wars and what I expect from a Star Wars movie.  Allow me to look briefly at The Force Awakens before talking about what you’ve probably been waiting for, The Last Jedi.

From the beginning of The Force Awakens, I believed that Poe and Finn were friends.  I didn’t go so far as to put them together romantically as many have, but in the first three minutes of their relationship, I believe that there was a bond between them that I didn’t ever see between Anakin and Obiwan.  As the story progressed, I believed Finn and Rey cared for each other, too.  And that BB-8 cared.  And that Han and Rey had a connection.  The Force Awakens established some new characters along with the old, moved the story forward, and gave me a reason to care about all of the characters involved.  At the same time, it made the Force mysterious again.

Finally, let’s talk about The Last Jedi.

The Last Jedi expanded on what The Force Awakens established.  The Last Jedi continued to lean on the relationships established in The Force Awakens.  And all of the characters involved grew.  Finn came to embrace The Rebellion, and not just look at it as a way to run away from an enemy he thought too large to face.  Poe learned to get past his ego and to not take for granted the lives of those that have volunteered to serve and die.  And Rey.  While learning the lessons of a binary view of The Force, she was forced to look at the world beyond simple black and white.  I think that’s going to inform her decisions going forward, not just with The Resistance, but with the way she deals with The Force.

The Last Jedi delivered what I wanted from a Star Wars movie.  Beyond that, it advanced the story.  It upset expectations.  It expanded the depth of Kylo Ren, a Star Wars villain more complex and with more depth than any other Star Wars villain we’ve ever seen.  That’s a hill I’ll die on, by the way.  As much as I want to overlay Anakin/Darth Vader on top of a Macbeth story structure, I know that Kylo Ren is a deeper, more complex character, and I sympathize more with Kylo more than I ever did Anakin or Vader.

Honesty time.  When I first walked out of the theater, I didn’t think I’d liked The Last Jedi.  On second viewing, I still wasn’t completely sure.  It took me three viewings before I could appreciate the story, and it all had to do with grief.

Luke Skywalker, my childhood hero, died.  I could not get over my feelings of grief the first two times I watched the movie.  I understood him fleeing the pressure of living as a legend.  All the things that Luke did or didn’t do, I understood.  I just had trouble letting him go, because I wanted to be him.

The Last Jedi humanized Luke Skywalker at the same time remaining true to previous stories.  He followed in the footsteps of the only Jedi masters he knew.  Obiwan exiled in the deserts of Tatooine, Yoda exiled to the swamps of Dagobah.  Of course Luke would exile himself, especially after his blunder with Kylo Ren.  He had touched the dark side, and as Yoda had warned, it dominated his destiny.

Once I was emotionally able to deal with the death of Luke Skywalker, I was able to appreciate The Last Jedi.  The movie works for me.  It’s a Star Wars movie.  It had its flaws, its campiness.  I could probably nitpick some of the details around the long chase with the ships, or Finn’s trip to the casino planet.  But I could nitpick any Star Wars movie in the exact same way.  It’s okay.  It’s a Star Wars movie, and I loved it.

 

Ready Player One

Compared to The Last Jedi, I only have a few things to say about this movie.

It was… fine.

Ready Player One could have been great.  It should have been great.  But it wasn’t.  It was just fine.  Popcorn fluff with heavy pop culture references.  Kind of forgettable after just a couple of months.

It should have been more than that.  I listened to Wil Wheaton read the book to me, and I know how good the movie should have been.

The problem is that the people that made the movie didn’t understand why the book was so good.  It wasn’t the pop culture references that plumbed the depths of nostalgia like an army of dwarves descending on a rich mine.  What made the book so great was the emotional punch delivered with each event Wade endured.

When The Stacks were destroyed in the book, we felt for Wade.  He lost his home.  When he met Aech, Wade took us through a whirlwind of emotions.  Relief, betrayal, confusion.  Very human emotions, and understandable.  All of the events of the book further connected us to this character that was flawed in all of the most human ways.  The pop culture references were just icing on a cake made from the ingredients that go into good storytelling.

Maybe I’m just taking the long way to say that the book is better than the movie, but I don’t think that’s it.  Spielberg has told powerful stories in his movies.  Movies with emotional impact.  He should have been able to do that with Ready Player One, because the material was there.  Instead, we got a movie that was just… fine.  Forgettable.  A little bit empty.

 

Avengers: Infinity War

The latest Marvel movie delivered on everything I just described in the previous movies.  Like The Last Jedi, Infinity War is part of a larger franchise, full of characters that feel real, with human emotion and motivations that are understandable, if not relatable.

Infinity War is not forgettable.  It advanced the story in unexpected directions, with real consequences.  I went in thinking that Captain America or Ironman might die.  Instead, bunches of other characters I thought somewhat safe turned to dust.

The Russo brothers took chances with this film.  In fact, it took the same kind of chances that The Last Jedi took.  So far, I’m not seeing Infinity War receive the same kind of backlash that The Last Jedi did, and I wonder why.

Every new Star Wars movie is compared to The Empire Strikes back.  Empire is held in high regard now, but when it first came out, it didn’t receive the same level of praise.  We didn’t live in a social media feeding frenzy back then, which helped to reduce the level of backlash.  But it did interesting things.  It fundamentally changed the story.  It effectively killed Han.  The good guys lost.  It ended on a down note, much the way The Last Jedi ended.  Much the way Infinity War ended.

I’ve talked to a few people about this.  Infinity War gave me an Empire Strikes Back moment.  Where are things going to go from here?  I’m excited to see the next movie.  So many characters I care about appeared to be destroyed.  How will they be brought back?

 

A good story should involve the consumer emotionally.  Spectacle can entertain for the short term, but a story that survives the test of time does so by grabbing the hearts and imaginations of the people receiving it.  Once it has you, refuses to let go.  It’s the lesson that I’m trying to take away from all of the movies I’ve talked about tonight.

I hope the stories I’m writing succeed in reaching people.  More than anything else, that’s what I want to accomplish.

03/3/18

A Writer on Jury Duty

Last week, I completed my obligation as a member of a jury.  I participated in the case of The People versus Demetrius Marcus.  My summons came on January 31st.  I wound up spending the better part of a month in the jury box.  Maybe I could have gotten out of it.  But as a writer participating in the process, I think I got more out of it than I gave.

The Case

The People charged that Demetrius Marcus entered The Pollard residence on March 27th, 2017.  He was armed, threatened violence on the eldest Pollard (Charles), threatened and pistol whipped the middle Pollard (Keith Sr), stole the Playstation 4 from the youngest Pollard (Keith Jr) along with a wallet and some marijuana.  While escaping the gated complex, Demetrius Marcus turned and shot Keith Sr.

Marcus was charged with 2 counts of robbery, 1 count of assault with a deadly weapon, and 1 count of felony in possession of a weapon.

The Ceremony of the Court

Before I get into the details, I want to take a moment to appreciate how the court functions and how it differs from what pop culture would have us believe.  For example, in the movies and on TV, court always starts the same way.  The judge enters the room from his chambers, often with a brisk step and a stern look on his face.  The bailiff intones, “All rise!” Everyone stands up.  The judge says, “You may be seated.” Maybe he bangs a gavel.

In the real life court room, the judge was usually seated when we came in.  They’d bring in the jury all at once.  We’d make our way to our designated seat in the box.  In the afternoon, the court secretary would give us a bowl of candy to pass around.  When things were about to start, the bailiff would say, “Remain seated, the court is now in session.”

After we had finished with deliberations, handing in the verdict proceeded much like it does on TV.  The bailiff took an envelope from the foreman, passed it to the court secretary, and she read out each count and jury’s judgement.  The defense exercised their right to have the jurors individually polled.  That whole procedure had the weight of ceremony.  I felt the responsibility resting on my shoulders.  There was enough ritual to the process that it seemed like we might summon the blind avatar of justice herself.

The Witnesses

Each member of the jury is given a binder which contains all of the instructions and descriptions for the charges.  In addition, the binders contained notebook paper and a pen.  I took so many notes that I needed to ask for more paper.  Most of my notes were about the witnesses and their testimonies.

I’m not going to write about all of the witnesses that took the stand.  There were over a dozen individuals and I don’t remember all of the details.  Also, I didn’t get to keep my notes.  The binder had to stay in the courtroom the whole time, and when we were done with deliberations, we were told to leave the binders in the deliberation room, to be destroyed later.  Fortunately, I have a pretty good memory.

The first witness, Teron, was a neighbor of the Pollards.  He lived in the apartment across the way, and he heard the commotion when the robbery was going down.  After shots were fired, he called 911.  Teron wore glasses, spoke with a quiet voice, and tried to cooperate as best he could.  After he gave his testimony, we were able to hear the recording from the 911 call.

Teron left me with the impression that the witness testimonies were going to be straight forward.  The reality is that the DA started with Teron because he was the most reliable and the most credible of the non-police witnesses.  If the witnesses for this case were part of a multi-course meal, Teron was the appetizer.

The next witness called was Officer Tippets.  I’m not trying to fat shame, but Tippets was a big boy.  He had a hard time fitting in the witness stand.  He squinted and pursed his lips before answering most questions.  When he spoke, his eyebrows would raise, like a child asking his parent, “Did I do good?”

Again, I’m not trying to judge or berate Tippets.  He seemed like a good guy.  But as a writer, I kept noting all of these interesting details about him.  The details that would make a character stand out in a story.

Tippets was one of the first officers on the scene after the 911 call.  He talked to all three Pollard men.  His account of what the Pollards had to say gave us the first hint of what was to come.  That the story of what happened in this case wasn’t going to come easy, and it wasn’t going to be clear.

I believe Keith Pollard Sr was the next witness called.  This is the middle Pollard, the one that was shot.  For reasons that became obvious, Keith Sr’s testimony was the most important, and not only because he was the victim.  The whole case centered around Keith Sr, his relationship with a woman named Shawana, and his tax returns.

When Keith Sr took the stand, I knew we were in for a wild ride.  For starters, he was brought in against his will.  He’d tried to flee the city when the trial began.  He’d been captured and incarcerated and brought in against his will.  He said on the stand that he was cooperating, but he only cooperated to a point.

Keith Sr couldn’t give his account straight.  He kept jumping around, not quite answering the questions given to him.  Chronologically challenged.  He was a short man with a hard edge and a little bit of swagger.  I remember noting that he had a lot of pride, and that the way he presented himself was important to him.  Not vanity.  It was more that he wanted people to know that he was tough and brave.

The district attorney kept asking Keith Sr questions and expecting certain answers.  Keith Sr’s answers consistently disappointed the DA.  For example, the DA asked about where Keith Sr’s bullet wound and where he was shot.  The DA was convinced that the bullet entered the front of Keith Sr’s shoulder and went out the back.  Keith Sr kept saying that he had his back to the shooter.  That he didn’t see who shot him, and that the bullet went in his back and out the front.

I could go on and on about Keith Sr.  He was quite the character.  He had messed up teeth, big eyes, and a hot temper.  He was clearly upset about losing a job because of the case.  The reason he’d been at his parent’s apartment that night was to take care of his Mom, who has some health issues.  I remember noting that I liked Keith Sr.  I also remember noting that I didn’t think he was very credible, and I had a hard time believing his testimony.

While they had Keith Sr on the stand all of one day and part of the next, they only had Keith Jr on the stand for about ten minutes.  Keith Jr was a punk.  He did not want to participate or answer any questions.  At one point, the DA asked, “If you had any information that would help my case, would you share it?” And Keith Jr said without hesitation, “No.” That sums up Keith Jr’s testimony, and every account of what Keith Jr had to say throughout the investigation.  He seemed more interested in street justice, and would rather die than help the police.

The last witness I’ll talk about is Charles Pollard, Keith Sr’s father.  Charles walked and talked slow, a lazy, deliberate pace.  He smiled and genuinely tried to help, but he didn’t seem to have much information to offer.  He wasn’t able to identify the defendant as one of the two men that entered his apartment that night.  He wanted to be helpful, but he didn’t have much he could contribute.

There were many other witnesses.  So many.  There was Trujillo, the hot detective in training that took Keith Sr’s account in the hospital a couple of hours after the incident took place.  There was Burgquist, the detective assigned to the case that was just a few months from retirement.  There was a forensics expert that specialized in finger prints.  Other police officers.  All of them interesting characters in their own right.

But the jury’s job isn’t just to listen to the witnesses and take notes.  Their job is to take all of this evidence and discern the truth of what happened.  And that’s what we did.

What Actually Happened

I want to talk about the deliberation process and some of the drama that came out of that.  But before I do, let me walk you through what I think happened in this case.  I’ve already talked about some of the key players.  Let me paint for you a picture of what really transpired based on the evidence that was presented.

Sometime in 2016, Keith Sr and Shawana Lynn entered into a relationship.  They went to Reno and married in June of that year.  It sounded like it was a spur of the moment thing.  Much of what happened with them was spur of the moment.  This was not a great union, and their relationship was rocky at best.

They often stayed at the apartment where Charles Pollard lived.  Keith Sr was his Mom’s caretaker, but I think they stayed there most of the time because they didn’t have any money.  Keith Sr was often employed, but Shawana herself did not work.

In early 2017, when it came time for Keith Sr to do his taxes, Shawana suggested that he claim her daughter.  That would ensure that they’d get a big tax return.  They went in together, and the people that did their taxes gave Keith Sr a prepaid credit card with about $500 on it, an advance on the larger return to come.

With the promise of thousands of dollars of tax money, Keith Sr and Shawana went to Matador Motors to purchase a 2016 Nissan Altima.  Keith Sr didn’t have a driver’s license so Shawana drove off with the car.

Shortly after that, Keith Sr discovered that the prepaid didn’t work.  Shawana had stole the real card and replaced it with an empty one.  Keith Sr went to his tax people made a change so that instead of the rest of the money going to the card, Keith Sr would be sent a paper check.

Keith Sr cashed the check and gave the money to his father for safekeeping.  He and Shawana exchanged some heated text messages concerning the car and the tax money.  Neither of them were particularly nice to each other, but in one of the last messages, Shawana sent “I’m sending you the life insurance forms. You’re worth more dead than alive.”

On March 27th, just before midnight, Marcus and another individual stormed into the apartment where Charles Pollard lived.  Charles Pollard was near the door, sitting on the floor while he went through some mail.  Keith Jr was in the back room on a couch, playing his Playstation.  Keith Sr’s mother was also in that room, sitting on a bed.  She’d been sick, soiled herself, and Keith Sr had just cleaned her up.  Keith Sr was in the bathroom cleaning up the mess.

The first assailant stepped immediately up to Charles and pistol whipped him.  Charles moved, and the assailant hit him again.  The injuries were severe enough that he would later need to be taken to the hospital.  A laceration behind his ear bled for days after the event.

While Charles was getting pistol whipped, Marcus went to the back of the apartment, gun drawn.  He saw Keith Jr and made him get down on the floor.  Keith Jr complied.

Keith Sr heard the commotion.  He started out of the bathroom and saw his son getting down on the floor, bug eyed.  He came out, rounded the corner, and immediately ran into Marcus.  They fought over the gun.  Marcus won, throwing Keith Sr to the ground.  Marcus kept saying, “Where’s the shit at?  Where’s the shit at?”

Marcus pistol whipped Keith Sr.  Keith Sr offered his wallet as well as a small container of weed that was sitting on the counter.

The first assailant came to the back of the apartment to help Marcus.  He reached past Marcus and hit Keith Sr with his gun.

When the first assailant went to the back of the apartment, Charles got up and bolted out the door.  He went to a neighbor’s apartment to call 911.

Marcus and the assailant tried to cut their losses.  Marcus grabbed the Playstation, the wallet, and the weed.  He and the first assailant then both fled the apartment.

It’s a little bit unclear as to what happened next.  There are some conflicting stories.  Keith Jr may have pursued the first assailant.  There’s a lot of speculation as to what Keith Jr did.  It’s clear, however, that the Playstation, wallet, and weed were dropped along the way.  It’s also clear that Keith Sr got up and chased after the robbers.

The apartment complex is a gated, retirement community.  There was only one way in and out of the complex.  Regardless of what transpired between the Pollard apartment and the gate, it was at the gate that Keith Sr saw Marcus and the first assailant get into a white Nissan Altima.  The same Altima that he and Shawana had purchased together just a couple of weeks before.  It was at the gate where Keith Sr was shot.

I believe that Keith Sr saw Marcus turn and shoot him at that time.  Marcus fired the gun twice — pop pop — and one of those bullets went into his shoulder.  The Altima sped off and Keith Sr went back to his apartment.  His neighbor Teron had called 911 after the shots were fired.  A little while later, the police arrived and Keith Sr was taken to the hospital to be treated for his wounds.

At the hospital, Officer Trujillo and her partner took pictures of Keith Sr and took his full statement.  He spoke for over an hour.  Trujillo didn’t have any equipment to record the conversation, but she took several pages of notes.  Important details came through in that account.  I believe that the most accurate account we received of what happened that night came from Keith Sr talking to Trujillo.

Deliberation

Going into deliberation, I wasn’t really sure yet what happened on the night of March 27th.  There’d been lots of testimonies, but much of it was contradictory.  Especially the accounts given by Keith Sr.  Every time he told the story of what happened, and he told it a lot, there were details that didn’t line up.  I didn’t think Keith Sr was credible enough to find anyone guilty.

But there was other evidence.  While Demetrius Marcus was being held prison before the trial, he’d called Shawana.  He didn’t think he was being recorded, and they talked about threatening and intimidating Keith Sr to get to change his testimony, or not testify at all.

The most painful part of deliberation for me was putting up with one of the other jurors.  He could not follow the instructions we were given, and he kept making up stories and taking the entire discussion down flights of fancy.  He asked for the court recorder to come and read back an hour and a half of testimony that we didn’t have any questions about.  He was a complete jackass.

If we had any questions or requests during deliberation, we needed to write it down.  The foreman would contact the bailiff, pass the note along, and a little bit later we’d receive a response.  I passed a note to the foreman, and she nodded and sent it on to the bailiff.  The note was, “What do we do if one of the jurors is unable to follow the instructions?”

The response came quickly.  We were brought out of the deliberations room, taken back to the hall outside the courtroom, and the foreman was brought in and questioned by the judge for a few minutes.  Then the problematic juror was brought in,.  He was questioned for almost twenty minutes while we waited in the hall.  Once they were done with him, they brought us all in.  The judge reiterated some of the instructions then sent us back to continue our deliberations.

After that, the juror behaved a little bit better.  He was still a jackass, though.  I’m pretty sure he was trying to stretch out the trial because he was getting paid the whole time we were on jury duty.  It was like a vacation for him that he didn’t want to end.

The Verdict

In the end, we found Marcus guilty of robbery in the first degree, guilty of assault with a deadly weapon, and guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm.  There were two enhancements on the first count that we found him not guilty.  Because there were two people with guns, most of the jury couldn’t agree beyond a reasonable doubt that Marcus was the one that shot Keith Sr.  Myself and two other jurors were sure Marcus had done it, but we found that we could live with finding him innocent on those enhancements.

The Importance of Jury Duty

As a writer, I came away with a treasure trove of information that will influence the subject matter of future stories.  Did you know that it is rare to get usable fingerprints, and that if your hands are particularly dry, you might not leave fingerprints at all?  That’s just one little nugget I picked up from this experience that flies in the face of what pop culture would have us believe.

But jury duty is important whether you’re a writer or not.  It’s an inconvenience, but it’s also an important part of our society.  If good people of integrity do their best to avoid jury duty, who is left to sit and judge the evidence?  To listen to testimony with an open mind?

Whatever faults our criminal justice system may have, the jury system is one of the things we got right.  But it only works as long as good people of conscience participate.

11/5/17

#NaNoWriMo check in!

It’s Sunday night, and it’s time for me to go to bed.  I’ve finished another 1700 words, and I’m feeling pretty good about this story.  It’s the end of day 5, and I’ve been maintaining the 1700 words-a-day pace.  If I can keep this up, I will reach my goal.

I really like this story!  This one might have some potential.  A few of my oldest friends and my family will probably remember my old Arthur Kane stories.  This retelling is taking the best parts that I can remember, and injecting a whole bunch of other sci-fi ideas I’ve had over the years, mixing it into something fresh and new.

This is a lot of fun.  And just for fun, I’ll share the first two paragraphs.  I think it sets the tone pretty well.

 

The stench of stale beer and old cigar smoke rolled over me as I ducked into the bar. Broken lights and motionless ceiling fans made shadows that pooled at the feet of empty tables. A mechanical server stood behind a counter, its single optic directed towards me like an accusation. A perfect place to meet a client that wanted discretion. Also not a bad place to get drunk alone.
I walked deeper into the establishment, my eyes still adjusting to the dim light. A couple of regulars sat at the bar. Not close enough to each other to be friends. Not far enough away to be strangers. They looked like hard men, grizzled and work weary. They bent over their glasses like their salvation rested at the bottom. One had darker skin than the other. One had more gray in their hair near their temple. Neither turned to look at me. They wrapped themselves in disinterest, a kind of apathy that could shield them from anything that might drag them out of their drink. I didn’t have to study them long to know what kind of men they were. And to know that they weren’t the ones I’d come to see.

I’m having a lot of fun with this story.  I’m a little worried I’m going to fall behind tomorrow, since I have band in the evening.  But if so, I’ll catch up.

10/31/17

Halloween 2017 and the End of Blogtober

Happy Halloween, everyone!  We did it!  We made it through October!

This is the third year in a row where I’ve stayed home on Halloween and handed out candy.  And, it’s the third year in a row where we gave out full sized candy bars and cans of soda or bags of Capri Sun, depending on the age of the trick-or-treater.  I also made sure that the parents walking their kids got a soda and a candy bar, too.

When you were of trick-or-treating age, did you ever have a friend tell you about one of those houses that was giving out “the good stuff?” Cans of soda, full sized candy bars, maybe handfuls of the non-generic?  Or maybe you were lucky enough to find those houses yourself.  I determined a long time ago that I wanted to BE that house.

Three years in a row, and it’s paying off.  We don’t do much in the way of decorating.  We didn’t have a jack-o-lantern outside.  I went outside once or twice and played my sax a little (my costume this year was Phantom of the Opera).  Other than that, the only thing to distinguish our house from any other is the memory from previous years.  And it worked.  We had a bunch of trick-or-treaters, and they were all great.

Halloween was a success this year, but I can’t say the same for Blogtober 2017.  I had been doing great until that kidney stone hit me up for five straight days of torture.  I pushed through the pain the first four days, but by the fifth day, I didn’t have it in me.  I let it go.

It only takes one bad day to break a goal like Blogtober.  My task was to write one blog post every day, and I did not complete that task.  I haven’t figured out how to go back in time yet.

But, I did learn some things from the experience.  I found the places in my schedule where I can sneak in writing time.  Even though I didn’t write a blog post every day, I did write close to 30,000 words in blog posts.  That’s not too shabby.

In a couple of hours, I’m going to start a new novel for NaNoWriMo.  I probably won’t stay up too late writing tonight, since I still have to work tomorrow.  But I’m committed.  I’m excited!  I haven’t written an Arthur Kane story in a couple of decades.  I’m curious to see how much he’s changed.

I know the world is going to be interesting.  A spinning city on the moon, with vicious robot dogs, emerging artificial intelligences, a seedy underbelly, and corrupt cops.  A place where the gravity is as false as the lies that hold the place together.  A place of fog and deep shadows.  A place where it’s never quite day, never quite night, and nothing ever stops moving.

I’m going to have fun with this story.  When I can, I’ll post updates here.  Other than that, I’ll probably be pretty quiet, with my head down trying to reach the 50,000 word goal.  Unlike Blogtober, one bad day won’t ruin me.

10/27/17

Doing Scary Things Daily

Today, I got up in front of my whole company and gave a presentation on the technology department’s development road map for the next year.  I created the PowerPoint presentation yesterday, complete with built-in comedy and prolific yet tasteful animations.  The PowerPoint was both powerful and on point, but I hadn’t really had a chance to rehearse.  So I did something that scares me, today.

Most people are at least intimidated by this kind of public speaking.  I heard somewhere that some people are more afraid of public speaking than spiders or death.  I’m not that afraid of it.  It gets my heart going, certainly, but sometimes it’s actually a lot of fun.

I did okay, and people paid me many compliments.  Today’s presentation isn’t really what I want to talk about.

Every opportunity we’re given to do something outside our comfort zone is an opportunity to grow.  Eleanor Roosevelt said “do something everyday that scares you,” but I think I would substitute the word “scare” for “challenge.”

For example, NaNoWriMo is coming up extremely fast.  I don’t think I’m afraid of that event.  I want to succeed this year, but there isn’t any real fear element involved in what motivates me, or the benefits I’ll receive from this activity.  But it will definitely challenge me.  And it will challenge me daily.

Today it was public speaking.  Later tonight, it will be mingling with my coworkers at a semi-formal event.  In a few days, it will be writing almost 1700 words a day on a story I started over 30 years ago.

 

In other news, I did not write my post yesterday.  It wasn’t the first post I missed this month, and I still have a pretty strong excuse.  I had a work emergency to deal with, and wound up creating my PowerPoint and working that issue until 1AM.  Work comes first, and I’d already busted on Blog-tober when the kidney stone knocked me down.

I will try to finish the month out strong, but there’s no guarantee.  What I might do instead is write up my planned posts for the 30th and the 31st in advance, post them on the appropriate days, and maybe take a break before going into November.  I’m no longer feeling all that motivated to write a post each day, especially when I’m scrambling to find something to talk about like today’s post.

Maybe I’ll feel differently tomorrow.

10/25/17

Adjectives Are Delicious

Advertisers have known for a long time that if you want to make something sound delicious, just add adjectives.  The adjectives don’t even have to make sense.  String them on in sequence, and the subject becomes desirable.

A quick example: oatmeal.

Oatmeal is okay, but it’s about as bland a thing as you can eat.  Right?

Let’s make it more interesting.  Let’s just add one word.  The word doesn’t even say anything about the flavor.  It’s just a brand: Quaker oatmeal.

It might not be delicious yet, but it’s suddenly more interesting.  Just making it specific has conjured up a particular bowl of oatmeal, perhaps with an image of a man in a tricorn cap.  Maybe you have fond memories of eating that particular oatmeal.  Maybe you just remember the commercials.  But I bet if choice one was oatmeal, and choice two was Quaker oatmeal, most people would go for the more specific choice.

But let’s take this to eleven.  Let me throw some extra descriptors into the mix and see if I can change your next meal plans: Rich, steel-cut, buttered, cinnamon and brown-sugar oatmeal, still hot and steaming.

Now we’re talking, right?  Maybe you don’t normally like oatmeal, but the specifics paint an image that would at the very least get you to try a spoonful.

Of course, words do what you want them to do.  You can make something delicious or disgusting with word choices.  But those descriptive words are additive.  You can keep piling on the spice by adding more words to the soup.

What you sacrifice in a story by indulging in this level of specificity is immediacy.  When you stop to taste the world more deeply, you slow the story down.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.  In fact, alternating between high-octane adventure and Tolkienesque dives into detail can keep the reader going.  You want their heart to race, but you also want them to have a chance to slow down and breathe.

It can also be a very effective way of tightening the strings of suspense.  Adding just that much more detail before a reveal and a release draws the moment out.  The girl being hunted in the night.  Her breath steaming to mist.  Her hands shaking.  The slow, shuffling drag of her feet through the grass, because she’s so tired from running.  The warm light of safety just a few more feet away.  If she can just go just a little further.  If she can just…

You can stretch a moment out like that for a long time through adding more and more description.  But don’t go too far because this is a point where the reader is holding their breath.  Make them hold it good and long, but don’t try to make them pass out.  If they release that held breath too soon, they’re likely to get bored and fall out of the moment.

Adjectives are delicious.  They come at a cost, but when they’re used right, the cost is cheap and the payoff is huge.  They can be used to make a part of your story more vivid, while at the same time, alter the flow of the story, controlling the pace.

One last example of descriptors done right is Chuck Wendig’s #HeirloomApples tweets.  Every day or so, he tweets about two or three heirloom apples, and it is amazing.  Click on the following, and read through the child tweets.  They’re good enough to make a guy forget he had a tummy ache.

 

10/24/17

Jeff Flake, and how Republicans have been replaced by Opportunists

A really good speech doesn’t have a long lifespan.  It’s like a firework.  It delights and thrills for a few moments, and while all of the excitement is hot and flying through the air, we feel like we’re transported temporarily to a different place.  A different possibility.  But then the speech is done, and all we have is the memory.  And the memory doesn’t do it justice.

Well, we have the internet now, so we can rewatch good speeches whenever we want.  So watch this one.  Watch it, and then let’s talk about Jeff Flake.

Jeff Flake is a conservative.  According to the daily beast, he’s as conservative as they come.  He’s conservative and has a conscience, and he’s been outspoken against Trump for a while.

But as much as he’s been verbally critical of Trump, he hasn’t really backed that up with action.  Even when he showed up on Colbert he stated how he would vote for the Graham-Cassidy bill, in line with Trump’s desires.

In fact, his whole voting record has been fairly consistently in line with Trump.

To be fair, the Republican party has been usurped by people that aren’t true conservatives.  From what I’ve read about Flake, he’s been voting his conscience.  It just looks like he’s voting with Trump.

I’ve been trying to think of an analogy.  Here’s the best I can come up with tonight.

Imagine a raging fire.  The fire is spreading, threatening the livelihood of a small town.

Two schools of thought form on how to deal with the crisis.  The first group suggests that the town should pool all their resources and bring as much water to the fire as possible and try to save the town.  There’s risk.  It could wind up costing a lot of money.  But if they can put out the fire, the town will be saved, and everyone will still have a home.

The second group has a different idea.  They think the risk to life is too great, and it would be better to let the fire reach the edge of the town.  When those houses on the edge start burning, they can topple the homes, trapping the fire so that it can’t spread to the rest of the town.  It would risk fewer lives, have a greater chance of stopping the fire from taking the whole town, but a few people (those home owners) are going to suffer.

Depending on your values, the first option might look better to you.  Or maybe the second option.  It’s hard to say.  Doing nothing would be the worst thing, because everyone loses.

I think Flake falls into that second group.  He’d take the safest route.  Maybe he fears that if the town loses all of its resources trying to put out the fire, the town is lost regardless.  Voting his conscience, he’d say trap the fire at the expense of a few houses.

Now imagine a third group gets involved.  They have an interest in building golf courses at the edge of the town, and they were wanting to buy the properties that are about to be burned.  This fire is the perfect opportunity.  They swoop in and loudly support the second group.  They shout it like it was their idea.  Heck, some of them might even claim that it was their idea.

That third group is Trump, the Tea Party, Bannon… all of the opportunists that have swarmed in and taken over the Republican party.  They make it look like they’re voicing support for a fair and reasonable position, but they’re just in it for themselves.  They don’t care if people get hurt.  They’re don’t care about the future.  They want the fast buck, the quick profit, the immediate satisfaction.

And you know what?  Those assholes probably started the fire in the first place.

 

Anyway, let’s get back to Flake.

Flake’s speech is amazing, right up to the point where he says he’s no longer running for office.  Because unfortunately, by this time next week, no one’s going to remember his speech.  They’re just going to list his name with Corker’s.  One more conservative Republican driven out by Trump and his ilk.

If Flake wanted to end his speech in a more memorable way, he should have called for Impeachment.  Everything leading up to that point supported that position.

Instead, he’s quitting.  He’s giving up his position of power.  He’s leaving the place where he has a voice and can make a difference and truly vote his conscience.

If this were still analogy land, it is the equivalent of someone from Group 2 saying, “You know what?  I don’t like what these other people are doing.  So I’m going to move to another town where it’s not my problem.  BYE!”

What he should have done was stay in the game.  After the houses came crashing down and the fire was stopped, he should have found ways to compromise with Group 1 so that the homes could be rebuilt, and the opportunists prevented from rebuilding on the burned down homes of those hurt worst by the fire.

 

I listened to the speech.  It was good.  Flake told the President off, and I wish more Republicans would do the same.  But the follow through is terrible, and ultimately overshadows the message.  If that’s his protest, it is weak.  I don’t think he was going to retain his seat, anyway.  Which makes not running a bit of an empty gesture.

The Left are going to be upset with Flake because they don’t know if they’ll be able to beat whoever runs as the Republican for his seat next.  The Right… probably doesn’t care.

What we need instead of words and empty gestures are principled actions.  We need better follow through.  We need to call the opportunists on their bullshit, take them out of positions of power, and never let them back in again.

10/23/17

A Few Words on Percocet

On Thursday, I went to the hospital in the hopes that my troubles with my kidney stone would get resolved.  They saw me eventually, gave me a terrible IV, a weak shot of Morphine that didn’t seem to do anything, and then sent me home with a prescription for Percocet.  I was to use the pain medication to get through the time of the stone passing.

I’ve always known this drug as Percocet, but maybe you know it as Oxycodone-acetamine?  I’ve heard people talk about Oxy before.  They’re probably talking about the same drug.  I think it’s supposed to be stronger than Vicodin.

The prescription reads: Take 1 to 2 tablets every 6 hours as needed for pain.  In other words, take no more than 8 in a 24 hour period, or 1 every three hours.

The bottle contained 20 pills, and the instructions said I should use them over the next 5 days.  That math just doesn’t add up.

I’ve been in discomfort for days, so I’ve been taking my Percocet.  Just within the last couple of days, I’ve noticed that it hasn’t had that much impact on the pain itself.  But I think I’ve been hallucinating a little bit.  Or maybe they’ve been fever dreams.

Look.  I’ve been high on Oxy, trippin’ balls on Percocet.  So I’ll just share a couple of the more interesting experiences and move on.

The first started Saturday evening.  It was so subtle that I didn’t really notice it.  I’d been rewatching Stranger Things, and since I’ve been having so much trouble sleeping, I kept slipping in and out of consciousness.  I knew that I was dreaming about Stranger Things, and I had some idea that if I conjured up the right images from Stranger Things, I could control my pain.  In fact, I was certain that the discomfort I was experiencing had to do with me existing partially in the upside-down.

Even after we finished rewatching that series, that idea stayed with me.  That if I summoned up the image of Wil Byers and Eleven simultaneously, the pain would get driven off for a short while.  It might have even worked a couple of times.

Later, another idea grew in strength as the Stranger Things dream diminished.  My guts had been replaced with a bio-mechanical equipment that was extremely good at processing numbers.  I was part of a large network, mostly used for as part of a large chain of encryption algorithms.  Somewhere along the line, I’d sustained substantial damage, and all the pain I was feeling was a manifestation of calculation errors.  Every time my stomach muscles would tense, I could feel numbers bleeding out of my powers, being ripped from my being and whisked off onto the network to be consumed by another process.

You can bet this last one is going to show up in one of my stories.

This morning, around 3AM, I decided to try and stop taking the Percocet.  It wasn’t really helping with the pain, and these weird visions weren’t helping, either.  I started doing some focused meditation.  I placed my hands in a triangle over my belly and imagined forming a bubble between my hands which extended into my body towards my back.  This was my IDGAF bubble field.  As long as I could keep that bubble in tact, I didn’t care about what was happening inside the bubble.  The pain didn’t exist.  Everything in the bubble didn’t matter.

The focused breathing really helped, and I managed to get my pain under good control.  Good enough that I was able to fall back asleep without having to take more Percocet.

I’m off the Percocet now.  Unless there’s a significant flair up, I’m probably good to go.  Ibuprofen is doing a better job now, probably because my main problem the last few days has been inflammation, which the Ibuprofen addresses.

I should be able to go back to work tomorrow.

10/21/17

Literary Theory (For Michael)

Michael suggested this topic, and when he did, he probably knew it was too broad to fit into a single post.  It’s something he’s been studying for years.  It’s something that the lit-fic crowd argues over.  From what I can tell, there’s not even great consensus on what literary theory even means.

Instead of wandering off into sophistry, I’ll talk about what this topic means to me: what does it take to tell a good story?

That’s something I can talk about.  The topic is still broad to the point of being unwieldy, but I think I can get into the nuts and bolts for a little while.

 

A good story should invoke the reader’s imagination.

Consider one of the first things you read when you first started reading.  A nursery rhyme.

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.

Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.

There’s not much to this story, but there is enough to evoke the imagination.  We have two characters.  We probably imagine them as children, but that’s most likely because there had been illustration accompanying the poem.  We know what these characters are doing, we have a little bit of setting (the hill) and we’ve thrust the characters into some kind of crisis.  Jack is definitely hurt, and Jill probably isn’t doing much better.

One of the great things about this story is that it uses verbs that you can imagine.  Jack went to fetch.  He fell, and Jill tumbled.  These are good verbs.  They paint an image.

Let’s take Jack and Jill and try giving them another scenario, with verbs that are less strong.

Jack liked Jill, in the valley or on the hill, and wanted to get her alone

If Jill liked Jack just as much back, do you think they’ll have sins to atone?

It’s a little wonky.  Give me a break.  I just made it up on the spot.

But I think it demonstrates what I was talking about.  It’s the same number of lines, but there are no verbs that drive the story.  Jack liked, Jack wanted, Jill liked, you think.  None of these verbs paint an image.  They don’t invoke the imagination.

The original Jack and Jill can stand on its own because it uses good verbs.  This addendum, on the other hand, doesn’t give the reader anything to work with.  There are still a couple of characters, but they’re not doing anything visible.  They are no longer in a setting.  Nothing has happened that the reader can imagine.

 

A good story should give the reader just what they need to see the story, and not a jot more.

Let’s consider Jack and Jill again.  We have enough in those two sentences that we get the story.  We could do with more, but we don’t need it.  We assume Jack is a boy and Jill is a girl, based on their names.  Depending on the tale we’re trying to tell, we could include more details.  We could completely change it up.

Let’s make it scandalous!

Jack, a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, took hold of Jill’s hand, her dark skin contrasting with his.  He pulled her along the beaten path up the shallow hill, following the way that so many teenagers like them had gone before.  He looked over his shoulder, first at his lover, then beyond.  The path behind them remained empty.  They climbed alone.

That’s not too bad.  We have a different idea of what they look like.  They’re older, and the reason they’re climbing the hill is no longer as innocent as to fetch some water.

In this example, I still haven’t given that much in the way of details, but the details I provided are enough to get the point across.  I included the important details (their skin color, their age) and left the rest for the reader to imagine on their own.

The reader should always be allowed to imagine their own details.  If everything is spelled out for them, they are no longer engaged, and their enjoyment is diminished.

Here is an example of what not to do.

Jack Johnson, a 17 year old white American with a hint of Native American heritage expressed through his dark eyes and patchy facial hair, wore partially faded denim jeans, a black t-shirt, and steel-toed boots that came to him second-hand.  The black t-shirt once held a logo, but time and washing had faded the image to illegibility.  Standing just under six feet tall and weighing 190 pounds, Jack towered over his companion, Jill Stevens.  Jill, an African American girl, wore…

I’m bored writing this.  None of these extraneous details are necessary for the story.  In a longer narrative, these details might be important, and maybe they should be included.  But they certainly shouldn’t be dumped on the reader as one huge info block.  For the story we’re trying to tell, that level of detail is too much and goes too far.

 

A good story invokes the reader’s emotions.

Let’s leave Jack and Jill alone for a moment, and head over to Les Miz.

I don’t cry often, but when I need to, I listen to Les Miz.  I get swept up in the story of the musical, and towards the end, one line is delivered that shatters all of my walls and makes me cry:

Come with me where chains will never bind you

That line is the culmination of a journey that has taken us across Jean Val Jean’s life.  It’s such a small description of heaven, and yet, it tears me up.  For Jean Val Jean, a place where he never needs to be worried about being chained again is heaven.  That speaks to his character.  It speaks to the simple beauty of heaven.  It hits me hard, every time.

It doesn’t take much to get a hold of the reader’s emotions.  In the Jean Val Jean example, I’m experiencing joy and relief and peace because that’s what the character is going through in that moment.

That’s the trick.  Give your readers characters that they can relate to, and when you character experiences an emotion, your reader will experience the same emotion.

I think that’s why I don’t like Grim-Dark.  My last attempt into that genre made me very upset.  I stopped liking any of the characters, and the emotions I was going through were just a wretched slog.  Other people like Grim-Dark.  More power to them.  A person may be able to go to town on a plate of ghost peppers, but I’m not going to consider that a meal.  I don’t consider Grim-Dark (at least what I’ve seen of it) to be good storytelling, either.

The ideas that invoke your reader’s emotions don’t have to be complicated.  A father’s love for his child.  The persistence of a grave injustice.  Lovers coming together, in spite of the odds.

If you want an example of a storyteller invoking a reader’s emotions through simple ideas, I highly recommend reading Dan Simmons’ Hyperion.  You don’t have to read the others in the series.  Just read that first one.  It’s amazing.

 

A good story sits on top of good prose.

This is more of a guideline than a rule.  It’s also one of those areas that can be improved without a huge effort on the part of the writer.

Consider the following example:

Arthur was sitting in a bar.  He was looking at a postcard from his partner.  The bar was empty except for a few regulars and the smell of stale beer.

This is three examples of passive voice.  Honestly, it’s okay to fall into passive voice every once in a while.  If you have a whole page of this crap, though, you have some work to do.  And it’s easy work.

Here’s how I would revise this:

Arthur sat alone in a bar.  He looked from his postcard to his drink, barely touched.  Behind him, empty chairs and empty tables huddled beneath a broken ceiling fan, which did nothing to diminish the scent of stale beer or wasted dreams.

It’s still not my best work, but the sentences are stronger.  The verbs are doing work.

I think this example does a pretty good job of demonstrating a previous point as well, which is that it evokes emotions.  Without coming right out and stating it, we get the impression that Arthur is sad and alone.  That’s the idea that we wanted to get across.  Along with that, you get glimpses of the setting.  The atmosphere lends itself to the emotions I’m looking to convey.

I’m sure other writers might look at that example and tear it apart for different reasons.  Good prose can be a subjective game.  If you have strong characters, a good plot, and a solid setting, you can get by with weaker prose.  Just look at the latest books in Jim Butcher’s Dresden series.

 

There are other things I could talk about, such as strong characterization, cohesiveness of plot, consistency, clarity, and freshness, but I think these main points are enough.  There’s also the matter of “show, don’t tell,” but I think we’ve covered that indirectly.

Most of the writer’s journey is subjective.  What’s important to one may not be important to another.  And reader’s tastes are subjective, too.  And the end of the day, at the end of the story, if the reader didn’t like what you wrote, then it doesn’t matter what advice you take.

As writers, our job is to deliver the best story we can to our readers.  The advice I’ve offered here should help, but do whatever you need to in order to achieve that one objective.