Sunday, September 28, 2014

Respect the Process

Up late, delirious and trying to get the hang of promoting this blog, I accidentally blasted a bunch of posts to G+ the other night. Weirdly, that took me back through a few of them and I noticed a running theme of pointing out personal taboos I'm breaking. Like, in defense of the breaking, the taboo, or both. I'm not a fan, and even if that happens to be what I'm doing, I'll try not to mention it as much in future posts.

But not this one. Sorry.

Turns out, I'm little interested in how other writers do what they do, so I have no idea how many of them hubristically maintain blogs or diaries of their efforts. As that goes, I'm not that certain I find my own process all that interesting, other than in that it might one day bear fruit. I'm hoping I find something I don't expect here. Whether I do or not, I hope it's of some value to somebody either now or down the road. There could be DOs and DON'Ts or more subtle nuggets buried in here. I don't know. But like I said, I don't strictly want to do it, and so, in the spirit of almost everything else in this blog, I'm gonna give it a whirl.

This last week has been a thunderclap of nothing happening. I got back on the caffeine (see the previous post), made it to the gym exactly once, conceived of a business deal that would have eaten at least a year of my life but now will never see the light of day after a few conversations with people smarter than me, and, though I sat down to it every day, almost no writing happened.

That last thing is the only one striking any kind of cord, but not a deep one. Everybody's been here before. Of the two books I'm working on, I've been trying to focus on the oldest, which I'm now convinced is the first in a long series even though that's not how I wrote what I've got so far. It reads like a graphic novel with no pictures and lots of unnecessary exposition and summary. Only a couple of the characters don't suck. There's no real plot, other than "this is a long story where fantasy things happen."

So it's pretty good so far. The longer a given story is, the longer the list of problems like this. A month ago I would have sounded even worse, only I didn't really bother getting into it with anybody except an interview in Indie Writers Monthly, and that was a format that didn't really warrant a long, drawn-out discussion of hating my own work. It's part of the process.

Here's what I mean, broken down by just those complaints:

  • It reads like a graphic novel with no pictures and lots of unnecessary exposition and summary.

A long, long time ago (2001) in a galaxy far, far away (thankfully, as I mean Fresno), I wrote about 130,000 words that will serve as the first draft of the last book in this series. Maybe. A couple of years later, in a less-distant galaxy (Concord, CA) I wrote about half of what I thought would be a prequel. Over the next tennish years, I poked and prodded at it, but I just wasn't writing too much of the time. It's always deviled me because I do like things about it, but it's never really found a voice. I summarize things I should either only allude to or fully expand, and I'm constantly explaining why somebody did or said something. These are, by definition, bad. 

So I need to find a tone, which is tricky because for some reason I keep wanting to fall back on fantasy tropes whenever I don't know which way to go. I guess it's just a weak signal, but the picture is big and dark with a lot of sexy lines and I really want to see the whole thing.
  • Only a couple of the characters don't suck.
I've got a discombobulating antihero, a confusing ring of paper doll debutantes, an okay villain,  a hero I like a lot, and a mixed bag of good, bad and indifferent supporting players. Almost all of these characters are used badly, popping in only as foils to advance a languishing plot with mouthy dialogue and drifting back into shadow with varying degrees of fanfare. It's bullshit. Some deserve better and most deserve to be gone or transfigured. 
  • There's no real plot, other than "this is a long story where fantasy things happen."
Okay, this is partly frustration talking. It really stems from breaking a rule I usually don't, which is Don't Write The Fucking End First. It's okay to have loose plot points I'd like to hit -- sometimes they're the ideas that got me going to begin with. But I can love them too much. I'm beginning to suspect I love that ending too much and I'm letting it pull the rest of the plot into purgatory. I find myself tempted over and over to scrap the whole thing and start over, but I really hope that's not the way either.

Now, I wouldn't just bitch about this and let it float off into the ether. I really am still working on it. Here they are again, with corrective measures:
  • It reads like a graphic novel with no pictures and lots of unnecessary exposition and summarizing.
On a first draft, exposition is often a sort of note-to-self. It means you've failed to show something or you're afraid you'll forget to show it later. In a story that's going well, a couple of drafts later you can just clip it out and the narrative improves. In one that's going less well, you have to find a way to show it or remove the reason you thought you needed it. The option always exists to leave it in, but it'd better be succinct and add something on its own other than information, like a character divulging something they shouldn't have or a note turning up from a character thought to be dead. Or illiterate. Or something. 

The missing graphic novel pictures are the back story and surrounding world, and the summarizing is the acknowledgement of that. They need to be fleshed out rather than referenced as if understood the way they are in my head. Maybe... I have to go back even further on the timeline and write that. If I have to I will, but not this year.
  • There's no real plot, other than "this is a long story where fantasy things happen."
This is more related to the first point than I thought originally. In this particular story, I get the sense, again, of having a destination and trying desperately to get there at break-neck speed. That's probably because I want that ending so badly and some part of me probably knows that if I do this right, I'm not getting it. It's frustrating to know this and still have to fight myself, but here we are.

So the approach I've been taking lately is breaking the parts down that I need to flesh out into smaller chunks, and writing them almost as if they were standalone short stories. It's working a little, but it's slow. A lot of times, it just takes going over the whole story again and again before you see the light, and I've been doing that too... but it's getting to be more and more of a chore I dread at the end of my day, and I'm finding more and more excuses to check Twitter, play a game on my phone or look something up. More on that after this point:
  • Only a couple of the characters don't suck.
This is the most frustrating part for me. Good, strong characters will drive a story no matter what you do or how badly you do it. However, a good, defined tone will better define characters organically, both for their harmony and their clashes with it. If they've got nothing to definitively harmonize or clash with, what you've got at best is a dogpile of characters with artificial quirks and mannerisms no more interesting than your average Family Circus strip. It's not always clear which creates the other (tone or character), but the answer can't be neither. Both, yes, but not neither. 

This is the one point I'm really stuck on. As I mentioned, I have a few characters I do like and I know what they're about, but this isn't something I normally struggle with. The natural approach would be to sit down and think backward through their individual back stories, and though this sometimes works, it has to be informed by that goddamn missing tone. So really, I'm putting a lot on my approaches to the first two points, hoping this one works itself out to some extent when I find the overall thread. I think it will, but to me that's not an answer. At least, until it is. 

The other way to deal with a really good block is to let the work go; go and do something else. In the last five or six months I've been ping-ponging between this story (let's call it "P" just for distinction) and another one ("H"). That one's closer to being finished in some ways (particularly in that it's much shorter, has solid characters and a defined plot), but has other problems. I guess the idea is that if I'm going to be driven to distraction, I might as well be distracted by some other work. I'm not sure how this is going to go, but that's where we're heading. Tomorrow I'm going to dive into H again, but here's a little preview of what I'm working through with that one:
  • Yet again, the tone and narrative are all over the place. 
This comes from a different framing. Originally this story was all visual for me, complete with actors I wanted in the parts and pieces of a soundtrack. I actually wrote a hundred pages of screenplay but then decided I would never do anything with it if I didn't get it back into a form I could publish. It's a novella now, complete with a literary device as a narrator, which is why the tone is wonky. I was trying to preserve the visual aspects I liked so much, which work in their own right but don't flow as cleanly as they did in the screenplay because it can't decide on a POV. 

So my spiffy new narrator either has to go, or has to get further into everybody's heads, at which point he becomes either something more or something much less. I can't tell which, and it's got me a little stymied. But again, with a couple of fresh read-throughs, I should get an idea. 
  • The pace is fast but there are a couple of time jumps.
Not plot holes, just blank spots where I'm not sure what happens, if anything... and if nothing, why not. Righting the narrative should help, but so too will thinking back through the back story and figuring out where everybody is, what they're doing and why. Could be that some of the bit players aren't quite being given their due too, so something might be said for expanding on them.

That'll be my next couple of days. I'll try to report back, even if there isn't much to tell. It'll probably get a little more specific as we go, but I'm trying not to let too many of the story details into the wild. That's actually for two reasons: it doesn't seem right to start people anticipating things that might or might not happen, and I really, really don't like feedback on stories that aren't finished. I used to make the mistake of showing first drafts to people, and that was not good. But I do think I can talk about the process and problems themselves without getting into story specifics, and anyway, if nothing else it'll make me think it through from a different angle, and that can't be all bad.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Hey Everybody. So Like, My Name's Rocci, and I'm Caffeinated.

I'm reporting to you today from my workstation, which I never do. I think it's got to do with being too scattered to sit still in my proper writing chair, which reclines fully and is overstuffed but does not swivel. The reason is venti. I did without caffeine for a couple of weeks, but today I went venti.

Credit: Josh Hara / @yoyoha / www.squirtgunhero.com
This is going to be a bit of an ode to caffeine and some other tangentially related things like sleep, work and weight loss, both to better answer questions I've been getting lately and to get some of it straight in my own head. [Disclaimer: Little to no scientific data to follow. ]

Once upon a time, I was twenty-two and immortal. I worked in a print shop in Concord, CA by day and played poker by night, mostly in a seedy but somehow venerable old card room called The Oaks in Emeryville. I ate about a pound of processed sugar a day and enjoyed a more-than-occasional craft beer, but had a real suspicion of over-the-counter pills and mood-altering substances like caffeine. Those are bad for you.

Being twenty-two and immortal, I often went directly from the job I was quickly discovering I'd always been wrong to want to the card room, where I would play all night and often drive back just in time to grab a breakfast sandwich from the shop next door to my job. I might sleep that night, but I might also might go back and play again.

I've always had an abrasive, maybe even abusive, relationship with sleep.

Somewhere into the year I was twenty-three, my immortality started showing surface cracks. I couldn't make it through work on the second day and I was packing on some pounds. I've always been biggish, but it was taking on a scary tone with back and lower-extremity joint pain. I was having a harder time focusing both at work and at the poker table,, so I did the logical thing: I got a new job in Oakland and and moved to Emeryville.

The new job was more physical and had longer hours, which lead to two quick discoveries. One: processed sugar is evil and possibly the root of most physical ailments in the western world, and Two: in a pinch, energy drinks will definitely do something.

Ah, energy drinks. I could write a really outdated book on those now, but it basically comes down to how caffeine affects you, how B-vitamins affect you, and how a random smattering of other supplements like carnitine and various aminos affect you. Getting the right combination kicks you up about one gentle notch and lasts for a while. Getting the wrong one probably means a glaring spike and a crash that isn't near fatal but you wish it was.

A little while later, I quit the new job to play online poker full time. That was when I really first began to hone my caffeine, diet and fitness strategy, mostly because my schedule was flexible for the first time in my life. I started to get in better shape around that time, and even kept it up for a little while when I went back to work because poker changed in a way that made it a lot less profitable for me.

Then the work went away. This was 2009, which would make me thirty. The poundage had gotten more stubborn and the attention span more nebulous. I came back to Concord and an old friend got me back into another print shop. I got fat and hateful again, and doubled my caffeine intake, which really didn't help so I drank more beer. You get the picture.

I went on like that for... I don't really know how long. Must have been a couple of years. Eventually I stumbled back into the gym, adjusted my poker game, and took another run at it. It was starting to go okay. At some point during all of this, I discovered the closest thing to a perfect energy shot there is, and I started stocking up and rationing in line with my workout and poker schedules.

I'm not going to say which one, but I will point out that I tried a pre-workout energy supplement and had about the worst reaction since ephedra was taken off the shelves. Can't say I recommend those, but to each his own.

I got into the swing just in time for the DOJ, shitheads that they are, to shut down rather than regulate and tax, a multi-billion dollar revenue stream the federal government desperately needed. Online poker in America went poof* overnight on tax day, 2011. Right around this time, my dad landed in the hospital and it was bad for a while. When he got out he was going to need physical assistance and then surgery and some more physical assistance. I was handy, broke and, not least, happy to do it, so I got free room and board while the shop I worked at slowly starved, as print shops are wont to do in this day and age. It eventually sold to a bigger shop that was consolidating similarly-situated shops, and I stayed on as a consultant, trying to wrangle a gazillion different processes into something that looked like a pipeline.

I'm the asshole with the pony tail and the straining 44" waistband.
Thankfully, Dad got better, and pretty fast. That was good, because when I finally looked around, I was a fucking mess. I went to a craft brew festival and somebody with a camera documented me, looking the worst I ever have. I'm pretty sure I'd broken 300 ell-bees by that time. 

I started walking because that was all I could do. For the first couple of months, I hauled a camera around the Martinez Marina Park, mostly as an excuse to get out and around after work. I got some fair-to-middling shots, and it felt good to move a little. The first time I weighed I was 293, and that finally scared me. I started tracking everything, but it didn't occur to me to take progress pics until I'd already gotten a little under way. I should have done more and kept a log or diary (or maybe -- and this is crazy -- a blog), but I was also branching out in my consulting business and I just didn't have the energy.

Ugh. I haven't wanted to get into this because it would eventually mean breaking more personal taboos. Oh well, I guess that's a big part of what this blog is about. 

If it's actually about anything. 

NSFW WARNING: Photos below depict a fat guy without a shirt. And then a skinnier guy, still no shirt.


Here are dates and milestones. I don't think this progression will see many more updates as I've pretty much attained all I can without going completely off the deep end. It really took going off to accomplish this anyway, and I don't know if I have another run like that in me. I still want to see if I can get under 200 (I set the goal at 190 when I was about 290, knowing I would never get under 230), but that's mostly just to do it. There's no real urgency and I need to spend more time working and writing.** 

People I know have been asking me what I did. That's a whole other post and probably a few spin-offs, but here are the broad strokes:

[Disclaimer II: This is what I did. DO NOT take this as advice.]

Diet

I used to live on fast food and candy bars. That's not hyperbole; I really ate little else. The sick thing is, I can cook and when I do, it's usually pretty healthy. I was given something of a gift in this category when my dad got better, as he's a hell of a cook and loves to do it besides. It wasn't perfect for dieting, but it was a good segue away from the drive-thru and into food worth eating. Plus, he almost always makes a salad with a vinaigrette dressing, which gave me something to fill up on and save the heavier stuff for lunch the next day.

When I made the move to Reno (right after I got down to 260), I lived almost totally on variations of that salad, Korean kimchi dishes and random ground beef, chicken and egg concoctions. NO processed sugar if I could avoid it, and the only dense carbs came on cheat days, like kimchi fried rice or some kind of ramen stir fry. 

The only number I watched was calories. At the start, I just shot for a 1000-1500 calorie deficit according to my pedometer, but a few weeks with a heart rate monitor showed me that it, like cardio equipment, way overestimated the calories I was burning. I switched to a hard line of 2000 calories in per day, and really aimed at about 1200. 

All that said, it seems like the biggest help was cutting sugar, starches and carbs, and alcohol out almost completely.


Exercise I

Walking / Hiking 


Like I mentioned above, it started as a photography hobby. Then it was cramming in a few extra miles at night to keep the pedometer happy. Then it was six or seven miles in the hills at a park by my dad's place. Every day.

Resistance Training


This started (again) about the time I started doing hills. After the hike, I hit my bench and adjustable dumbbells for about 35-45 minutes with short rests, 4-5 times a week, doing one of four muscle groups each day.


Exercise II

Intense Cardio


I started mixing in a mile or two of running in the hills, but my joints didn't like it. I tried to do roadwork, but they didn't like that either. I figured I was still too heavy at 260ish, but I joined a gym when I moved to Reno and running on a treadmill was better. Once I could do a couple of miles in under 20 minutes, I started mixing in intervals a couple of days a week. That, combined with a minimum 20 minutes of moderate cardio after weights every day made a HUGE difference.

More Resistance Training


My strategy didn't change that much, but the variety available did. I don't have much to add to this except that variation is good, in weights, specific exercises and sets/repetitions. Also, doing some kind of core (abs and lower back) threeish times a week is critical if you're not a fan staring at your ceiling with your feet up on a laundry hamper for days on end. I stand by that statement whether you do any or none of the above. 

***

Okay, that all got more granular than I meant it to. If you remember how this got started (a long, long time ago), I was talking about caffeine and the roles it's played for me. I took a couple of weeks off lately, both as a control now that I've attained a reasonable state of fitness and shirked most of my bad habits, and because it's an expense I would cut out if I could.

Basically, I limit my (regular) caffeine intake to the energy shots I take to get up in the morning, and occasionally for an extra bit of pep in the afternoon. They're not that heavy on it, and in fact, most coffee drinkers get more of it than I do. But, to get my workout schedule to line up with my work schedule, I have to get up at 5 am. Were I religious, I would compare that to heresy, sadism and a multitude of other sins that often euphemistically replace "unpleasant." If I can get an energy shot into my system within seconds of my alarm going off, I have a chance at fighting through. If I can't, it's a toss-up. 

Particularly on days I've managed this feat, one of those shots may also mean the difference between completing a project that afternoon and zoning out to a podcast or a baseball game. 

Sleep has always been a bitch for me. The best control I've ever had has been when I fall into a pattern of get up at five, slam an energy shot, go to the gym, clean up, work, take another shot if my ass is dragging no later than 2 pm, work some more, hopefully write a little, fall asleep to the news. Rinse, repeat, skip the shots on Sunday. That went all to hell on my caffeine-out, sleeping erratically and unsatisfactorily the whole time.

My mental acuity also went to hell. Harder to focus, shorter attention span, less mental stamina. It was a little like being back in grade school -- if I got really into something I was fine, but everything else was a stupor-inducing struggle. I'm not sure if that makes me an addict or just somebody who's a little dumber without direct intellectual stimulation, but it seems to be solid evidence. 

Not that this rambling post does much to argue for it, other than existing. I tried to write another one on the whole NFL debacle earlier in the week, but it was so disjointed and aimless I scrapped it. Now, it's true that that happens all the time, but it was the only thing I even managed to start on during this whole experiment. Not good.

The expanse question is also self-answering. I can usually find these energy shots for about $1.50 a pop, so best case, lets say I take one in the morning six days a week and one in the afternoon twice a week (the average before this was down to more like once, which was half the reason I tried this at all). That's 8 x $1.50 = $12. My retail rate is currently $65/hr, so if I average an extra fifteen billable minutes I've already made money on the proposition. Worst case would be if I pulled an all-nighter on a Saturday on a week where I'd already used two/day every day (they say don't exceed that and I don't, ever), for 14 x $1.50 = $21. By definition, those bad boys are way paid for if I'm under that kind of a load.

I guess the point of all this started out to be how central caffeine itself is to my health and general well-being, but now that I look at it, the whole picture was a big one that took a long time to get right. It's complex and interdependent on a lot of outside forces, but I'm at the point where I don't think I can do it much better. That feels pretty freaking good. 

_______________________
*There were still technically ways to play online, but they really, really sucked. There are more now, and yes, they still suck very much.
**I don't get into it here, but there was actually about a six-week span where I was doing two-a-days at the gym, averaging nine or ten visits/week. I might have done that more but I hated the night crowds almost as much as taking trouble calls in the middle of a cardio set.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

IWM Interview and a Picks Update

A couple of cool things are happening at once. First, I did an interview for the September issue of Indie Writers Monthly. Back in July, my short story "The Egg Timer" was featured in IWM's time-travel-themed anthology, so if you haven't read it there, you can check it out in this issue right after the interview.

Next, The Bonus Edition of Picks is now available both in print and on Kindle, and is enrolled in Matchbook. That means if you purchase the paperback edition from Amazon, you can also download it to your Kindle for free. Also, I punched up the front cover just a smidge, and, as I've heard I should over and over, added a jacket photo to the back cover. I shaved my sacred chin whiskers for this, people, so my chiseled jawline and haunting, rugged look had better move some copies. Tell everybody.

Actually don't. Instead, tell them as of this writing reviews continue to trickle in and Picks: Some Things I Dug Up is still five solid stars (★★★★★!) on Amazon. Tell them to check it out!