Unexpected Inspiration

Catskills Path

I’ve welcomed fresh energy from unlikely sources. I’m back to waking up and looking forward to my morning writing sessions.

The first source was Home on Apple+. A show about unique houses, the people who designed, built and live in them. The first one I watched was “Soot House” featuring a cabin in the woods for a small family. Their cabin was everything I’ve ever wanted in a space; spare, functional, minimalist. The actual space, though, isn’t the part that caught my imagination…it’s the stories of real people building something for them, combined with the artistic bend of the series. Something about plans, architecture, using different materials, being out in secluded woods, got me excited. Even the other houses I’ve watched were inspiring, especially the one in Austin built on a toxic industrial site. I literally had trouble sleeping that night; my mind was racing and I just couldn’t stop the flood of ideas and images running through my head. I’ve always been a sucker for the stereotypical architect archetype… Dieter Rams in a spare office talking industrial design, young architects in stations with minimalist desks, hand-drawn designs, etc.

Letting go of Crystal Grove also helped. I didn’t realize how much it hung over my head and stopped me from moving forward. A few weeks after trunking CG, ideas flowed. Writing wasn’t a burden and the world just seemed brighter, lighter.

Finally, the end-of-year processes for my actual job has inspired. Usually, the end of the year means painful reviews, budget denials, stress around submitting plans. We’re making big changes (for our small group) next year, with new projects, added responsibilities, lots of hiring. My team and I have to lift our heads out of the weeds and look into the distance, forcing the aperture by which I look at the world to widen.

These inspirations have common themes; planning, design, space for thinking. I used to spend more time designing when I actively wrote software; re-introducing it to different aspects of my life feels great. Less obvious themes include white space, use of form and space – I sense a symmetry between an architect designing a space optimized for warmth and efficiency, or an industrial designer designing items to do one task, with writing and creating. White space, design, the craft of using words to create a place, a feeling, an emotion. Another aspect of these inspirations is people designing and getting what they want, as opposed to accepting something else. Something about wanting a space of their own, designing and building it just makes me happy.

Clawing Out of the Trough

In my last post, I whined about a lack of enthusiasm. How can I claw out of this ebb? Doing the same things in the same way and hoping for a different outcome won’t work. I need to change.

I’ve described my daily routine before, and am very protective of my morning ritual. Wake, morning pages, meditate and then a minimum of 500 words. I need to preserve large parts of this routine, but re-examine the writing part. Some days (like… today!) I have a backlog of non prose-writing tasks; working though plot ideas and then outlining Unfair Advantage 2. Trying to find time in my busy workday for these activities doesn’t work… I’ve found I can carve out a few minutes for light editing, but not any deep, creative thinking. One of the pleasant parts of writing in the morning is my focus and creativity are at their peak. I need to de-emphasize “words on the page” and transfer the energy to working on other elements of writing.

In an ideal state, I could do both… maybe a quick writing exercise to keep everything sharp and fresh, but spend most of my time and attention on an outline, plot ideas or even high-level edits. This will do two things; move the process along so I don’t have a fearsome backlog of edits and half-baked ideas and set up a consistent, daily practice for the other elements of creating and managing stories. I’m wary of not creating prose every day, but I need to push through.

Another change is how and where I do these non-writing tasks. I need to find that consistent second spot where I can focus for 1-3 hours at a time and really immerse myself in a problem. No reason I can’t do it here, at home, but it’s not working. Too many people, distractions, food, chores, etc. I need a physical space where I can read, edit, lift my head and think. Quietly. Luckily, the local library re-opened a few months ago; I need to spend a few hours there and see if it fits the bill. And soon. Another thought is writing to music. To date, most of my writing has been without music or background noise. But the other noises of life, the sound of my kids getting ready to leave in the morning or the incessant roar of motorcycles grinding past on the nearby highway distracts me. So many authors, from Lewis to Holiday, write to the same repetitive playlist. I need to find mine and put on the earbuds and crank. Without distraction, I should get through my daily words sooner and leave time for the other tasks.

The last change is to have more work “out there”. I have put nothing into the world in months. Part of this change is the long, gatekeeper driven process for publishing. The other part is not finishing the editing on pieces. I need to get multiple stories out for publishing consideration simultaneously. There shouldn’t be a week where I don’t receive feedback from a publisher. Then, if I can’t find a home for a piece, I should publish it here. Anything to get more eyes on the work.

The Ebb

Cabin Life

I’m in a deep ebb for writing fiction. A few things at play… I had to “trunk” Crystal Grove. Nothing could save the story even after countless hours of writing and revising. I love the characters and certain scenes, but my “go back and add shit here and there” approach failed. It reads like 3 different people with 3 different ideas wrote the damn thing. As a last ditch effort, I tried to send it to Reedsy editors for an evaluation and suggestions… no one accepted the assignment. The last section is much stronger than the first two and might stand on its own. Or, the viewpoint of a secondary character could make for a stand-alone story… but for now, it’s trunked. Dead.

Trunking CG sapped my enthusiasm. I have two stories out to publishers; they’ve been in the can for over six months. I quite like “Wasted Crisis” and it should find a home. The process is so frustrating, with months and months of waiting and then a form email rejecting the piece. And the builds on other frustrations about where are the right places to submit to and to target… few journals look for realistic, non-emotional short fiction. It’s hard to picture the right places for the work to live.

Compounding the issue is my lack of a WIP. I wrote a few brief stories a few weeks ago, one featuring a security officer in post-secession West Palm Beach and a better one about wizards in post-industrial New Jersey. They get to join the backlog of stories that need editing and work, along with Mags Hotel, two leprechaun stories, The Valley and a smattering of other tales. As I’ve written about before, my struggle with resistance is around editing, not writing. Happy to write all day, but revising…

I’ve spent my morning writing sessions with a deck of prompts from Writing Down the Bones. They are brilliant and useful questions. The prompts promote writing with genuine emotion and truth. I certainly can use more of this and the prompts are useful… but I can’t write to them every day. And I’m on my second week of nothing but prompts. I should only use them as filler or when I’m in-between work, not as a month-long assignment.

The last piece of my ennui pie is the work required to start my next piece. I’m going back to Unfair Advantage. After visiting West Palm for the first time in over two years, I found the shell of the second and final part to UA. But, in one of my lessons learned from CG and other work, I’m not writing anything until I have an outline and the conclusion worked out. Fully. By fully, I mean no parts that I can’t explain fully to myself. And pass the sniff tests in terms of interest and rising tension and all the other basic components of writing that I chose to only loosely follow until now. I’ll outline differently than previously… I didn’t like the very formulaic spreadsheet outline with fifteen column headers. I will try the James Paterson approach (ignoring the negativity around his writing… that claim may make the case for following his outlines stronger, not weaker) or writing the outline out per scene/chapter, but in paragraph form. And keep asking myself “and then what happens…” and keep throwing obstacles at Eileen. Would love to bounce ideas off of someone with experience in story writing… but I haven’t cultivated that community yet. And not having the plot points stops me from outlining, which blocks the writing.

Books That Have Changed My Life: Born To Run

Born To Run

Another life-changing non-fiction book is Born to Run by Chris McConnell, released in 2011 to great fanfare in the triathlon community. The founder of Slowtwitch called it an industry-shaking book. It made me an advocate of natural footwear, especially for running shoes. Since reading, I’ve worn either sneakers with zero-drop or .2 mm drop. I also look for a wide, natural toe-box because of this book. It literally changed the way I move.

The premise is humans are born to run and the stuff we put on our feet only gets in the way and causes injuries. So, the less drop and more “natural” room feet have, the better. I now (when not fighting through weird injuries) wear New Balance Minimus. Turns out they aren’t truly minimalist shoes because they have structure in the mid-foot… but I like them. This thinking about movement and footwear migrated across all facets of my life. I’m barefoot most of the time. When I do wear shoes, they are Vivo Barefoot or other all-natural brands. When I stopped competing in tri’s, I went to the gym to work on functional strength and am interested in natural movement classes. All of it from BTR.

Besides footwear, BTR gave me an early look into a current theme; the emphasis on movement/standing and the dangers of office and sedentary life. It’s pretty accepted, now, that sitting all day in a chair, in air conditioning, is terrible for your health. BTR examined this fifteen years ago, with stories of how our primitive ancestors ran for hours a day, then squatted around a fire at night.

Books That Have Changed My Life: Getting Things Done

GTD OG Style

Another life-changing non-fiction book is Getting Things Done (original edition), the perennial bestseller. I wonder how many of the millions of purchasers actually read it, or, like me, implemented the prescribed strategies and solutions.

It only took a few pages to know this book was gold. The author, David Allen, tells a story about how he would sometimes write lists (before his GTD system) and, if even if he completed a task earlier, he’d write the task just for the satisfaction of crossing it off the list. I do the same… I lean toward this kind thinking and behavior, which I’m sure is the reason the book’s concepts land with me. There are plenty of descriptions of his system elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it here. On a daily and weekly basis, I follow the most basic habits. Inbox zero. It’s a pain in the ass, but I don’t miss mails or have thousands of unopened items in my Gmail inbox. I was on a presentation with a vendor and his email tab read over 9k unread mails. My God. Anyway, that’s a daily habit.

Weekly, I have a “meeting” with myself where I review the previous and preview the next week’s calendar and tasks and merge my projects into a “Projects” list. I then consult this list daily and turn project items into daily tasks. I also keep a “Someday/Maybe” list (as a parking lot) for projects that aren’t on the main list. This isn’t exactly what GTD calls for, but it works for me. I have done none of the monthly or quarterly check-ins in years, but I used to… and should do them again. The other daily habit I took from GTD is managing my day-to-day with a task list, and I dutifully check off items as I complete them. I’ve followed this protocol for so long its second nature and literally a part of my life.

Books That Have Changed My Life: The Pragmatic Programmer

Original cover for The Pragmatic Programmer
Original cover for The Pragmatic Programmer

After my brief stint as an Environmental Health Specialist, I switched to a technology career. As aforementioned, my schooling was in Environmental Studies (policy, light science), so I spent the first part of my “new” career reading and learning about the profession. Most books in the space were very technical and focused on a particular product or skill or language (“Visual Basic for Dummies!”)… and I certainly churned through many of them. But one book shone above the rest: The Pragmatic Programmer.

My wife never comments on the books I read, but even she noticed how much time I spent with this book over the years. TPP is the polar opposite of a tech book focused on a specific topic. Instead, it addressed how a programmer (somewhat dated term, now commonly called a developer) should think about their work and career habits, training and approach to the work. So many of the lessons imparted in these pages made their way to my professional and everyday life. Thomas and Hunt, the authors, had a theory/approach called “Tracer Bullet Development”. Basically, they prescribed building a very basic, working part of all aspects of a system to make sure the idea would work… don’t build the middle layer completely, then move to the front end, then to the db and, only after months or years of work, discover basic holes in the concept. Get all the pieces framed out and fire off a tracer bullet to ensure the concept is sound and they aren’t major obstacles (performance between layers, security, technologies that don’t talk to each other, etc.). I’ve championed the TBD approach in every software project I’ve led or managed since, with great results. And it crosses over into other parts of life as well. TPP is full of quick (but deep) lessons like this, including a heuristic about lazy programmers… the lazier the better (a cheeky way to describe programmers loathing of repetitive tasks, so they lean on automation, which removes risk of error and forgetting. Useful well beyond programming * see finance gurus*. I’ve used TBD thinking everywhere in my life). 

Not only is TPP chock-full of fantastic lessons and advice, but the book itself is brilliant. The authors clearly concentrated not only the prose but the text, layout, etc. And use it as a lesson in automation, layout, etc. DRY… Don’t Repeat Yourself. YAGNI… You ain’t gonna need it. Don’t Live with broken windows. Certainly, in the over twenty years since (my version) of the book published, a lot has changed and some of their advice seems dated. Thomas and Hunt published an updated version; I haven’t read it because I don’t actively practice the craft anymore… based on how much the original version influenced me, I probably should.

Books That Have Changed My Life: The Monkey Wrench Gang

The Monkey Wrench Gang
The Monkey Wrench Gang

I recently worked on the following writing prompt: “Write about reading and books that have changed your life.”… a different question than writing about your favorite books or the best-written books. I’ll share the most notable books in a series of posts.

In high school, I joined a club called S.A.V.E., Students Against Violating the Environment. My involvement led me to explore magazines and books around environmentalism. In the late 80s, with Bush Sr. as president, a huge groundswell emerged… I was too young to realize the momentum was new and reveled in my new focus. The local library and bookstores (in the local mall, B.Dalton and Waldenbooks) had two types of books and magazines; dry books, like Silent Spring or magazines from the DEP (NJ Department of Environmental Protection), with bland covers and articles that seemed important but boring. But there was Buzzworm magazine. Glossy, with cool nature photos on the cover (close-ups of colorful Amazonian frogs) and good, readable articles.

One of the repeated references in Buzzworm was to Edward Abbey. I hadn’t heard of him or his books titled The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire. I don’t remember how I got hold of these books; I liked Desert Solitaire and loved TMWG.

TMWG is a story of a band of rag-tag environmentalists (a dentist, his younger girlfriend, a river guide and a radical Vietnam vet) who try to stem the inevitable tide of development and accompanying destruction of the American desert with sabotage. The characters were other-worldly to my suburban NJ self, preachy, righteous, driven. And it was an adventure story with suspense and drama; the characters camped out under the stars and drank beer and swapped lovers. The plot was wild and appealed to my teen desire for rebellion and adventure. And, along with other media swirling around, solidified my passion to make environmentalism a career. TMWG sent me on a path to an environmental college (Cook College, Rutgers) and my major (International Environmental Studies) and my first job (Health Inspector, now properly referred to as an Environmental Health Specialist).

Cover of My Copy of TMWG

I haven’t re-read TMWG in years. Will my jaded self react to the characters and their passions and preaching differently? Negatively? I’m way on the other side of the fence, a corporate employee with two kids and a wife in the ‘burbs. And, most notably, any form of terrorism did not age well. I read this twelve or thirteen years before 9-11 when terrorist was something that happened on the news in London or Beruit.

Abbey turned out to be a difficult as well. Just as my younger self was a fan of his fiction, I devoured much of his non-fiction. Mostly he wrote about the desert and his attachment to the land, his thoughts on land use and people in suits and the environmental movement writ large. As a teen, I read and absorbed these thoughts as truth, the righteous path. Now, when I’ve tried to read him, it comes across as grumpy and limited. And, let’s be fair, I’m the bad guy in his stories now… when I was younger, I assumed I’d be the fire ranger sleeping under the stars. Instead, I have a house in the burbs and two Hondas. There’s another aspect of Abbey that’s hard as well; he doesn’t come across well compared with modern sensibilities, with less than enlightened views on women and equality and race.

Moving Goalposts

Abandoned Road

I started writing (and this website) with modest goals. Set up a writing routine. Get published, somewhere, anywhere. Have at least one-hundred people read my stories. Work on the craft, become a better writer. Consistently publish on this website.

Over the last one-plus year, I checked off those boxes. Quality is difficult to measure, but I definitely have routine, had 2 pieces published (one in a paper journal… impossible to know how many people read finished The Inspector’s Legacy, but we’ll take the check mark), publish 2-3x/month to this site, and worked on drills, classes, prompts and feedback to improve my writing.

Time to reset. The number one goal is to publish more. I’ve come close to having work published, but this ain’t horseshoes. Writing a few thousand words per week is pleasant… having real, consistent feedback and readers is better. Publishing 2-3 short stories per year is the number one goal.

The second goal is to self-publish a novella. I’ve mentioned Crystal Grove for months, and is still a work in progress. But I’d like to go through the work of self-publishing, promoting, etc. It’s a weird story, and I’m not sure I’d start it again now, but it needs to get out there and off my plate.

The previous goals are concrete and measurable. The next few are grayer. I want to pick a few genres/areas and try to get notably better in the space. Better define who I am as a writer, establish the range of places I can publish, understand what those audiences expect, etc. And this goal supports the publishing target as well.

Another goal is better relationships with editors. Both types; the developmental and line editors needed to whip a story into place, and the gatekeepers at journals. To date, I’ve used editors at Reedsy. Their feedback is good, but only for the story itself, not for a larger view of my work.

I hope these new targets build a foundation for the final, longer-term goal. To build a practice and give meaning to a post-working-stiff life.

Group Think

Trail Markers

I just finished This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Highly recommended, an incredibly unique story and book, and I suggest going into the story completely blind (don’t read any reviews or plot summaries. Note, this is neither). At the end of the story, the two authors exchange acknowledgements.*

The people who played a role (and if the kind words are to be taken at face value, large roles) stunned me. The book is two-hundred pages long with generous fonts and margins; it could easily be condensed by fifty pages. A short book. Not only are there two authors, but friends and family who provided advice and support, agents and editors, subject matter experts, language geeks, managing editors, copyeditors, stylists, publicists… wow.

This is very different than the lone author, Hemingway hunched over his typewriter in Key West, a solitary man banging out masterpieces. It seems the co-authors worked together in a gazebo and threw around ideas. Probably agreed on an outline and beats together. I don’t have any information on the mechanics of their partnership, but I can see the advantages to working together. Better ideas. Instant reaction, excitement around concepts. And, assumedly, external validation from the team listed above. Amazing to get feedback on an idea, a concept, a scene, a character arc before writing. It hadn’t occurred to me authors could get that sort of information BEFORE putting words on the page.

Reminds me of what I’ve learned about Koppelman and Levien, via Koppelman’s podcast. They will work on story arcs and outlines together, with all of the validation and excitement inherent in sharing a vision. I don’t know much about writing for screenplay’s, but assumedly the studio signs off on an idea or concept in advance… another form of validation. Do these check’s and balances remove doubt while writing? The voice that says the plot is dull, the characters weak, the pacing off, the whole concept isn’t worthwhile? It seems freeing.

I’ve written before about the need for feedback loops and editors, or at least trusted readers. Their value looking at a first draft is obvious… but getting feedback even earlier blows my mind. I’m waiting until I feel like Crystal Grove is readable before showing it to anyone; minor plot points are in flux and lacking quality. But what if there are major flaws, or poor assumptions, or the idea just stinks? This changes my view on when to share work and how collaborative some art really is.

  • reading acknowledgements and thank-you’s as well as author’s introductions is a new habit. Neil Gamian’s notes are so interesting in his short story collection and any additional color or context from the author is fascinating.

Finding My Tribe

Mohonk Mountain Path

I’m on the road, visiting friends in Portland, Oregon. We had wine last night at Muse Wine Bar. While enjoying a Ploussard, a mixed group of runners assembled outside the nearby Portland Running Club. The runners, dressed to work out, greeted each other, stretched, laughed, took a group picture, started together, and came back in small and medium-sized groups forty-five minutes later. More stretching, circles of sweaty people chatting, having beers, talking about the run, the weather, whatever.

I’ve been a runner my entire adult life but never joined a running group, mainly because of living in the suburbs and my early morning running preference. I could see the camaraderie forged through shared experience. Initially, I was jealous that I wasn’t part of a similar group, and upset that I hadn’t been able to run for 3 months because of a mysterious groin injury. But it made me think how these runners found their tribe, and how I need to find mine.

When I started doing triathlons, everything I knew about training for tri’s came from Triathlon Training and slowtwitch.com. At a race at the end of my second season, a guy from the newly formed Jersey Shore Triathlon Club noticed my running times and said I should train with the club over the winter. I joined and began to mountain bike in Allaire park with serious recreational athletes. On my first ride, I struggled to keep up and fell a dozen times and was the last person in the group… but we talked shop at every break, made plans for more training later in the week, discussed gear and cross-training ideas. I called my wife from the parking lot and excitedly told her I had found my people.

The Portland running group reminded me of that feeling, of belonging to a tribe of peers. It elevated me as a triathlete, made me faster, confident and more invested in the sport. I need to find the same in a writing community. A group of peers to elevate me, keep me honest, have bitch sessions and whine, exchange publishing ideas. And to keep me invested.

I had hoped Scribophile was that group. The issue is uneven feedback and lack of focus. I joined a sub-group for beta reads; it was helpful to discuss in real time someone else’s impression of your writing but inconsistent in terms of genre, commitment, ability, etc. I appreciated them and their writing, but didn’t see a future with them. I also looked for local writing groups; there is a women-only group that meets in my local library and a quasi-group called Project Write Now.

I loved the stories about Chuck Palahniuk’s famous writing group. Authors sitting around a dining room table, reading and sharing thoughts. As the article mentions, each member of the group contributes a certain strength. The chance to get feedback, to bounce ideas, to share the thoughts and fears around writing.

The best next thing is to form a group myself… except I don’t know any authors. Not one. Check that, I do work with a guy who wrote a book and is working on a memoir, but he lives in downtown Manhattan and only writes non-fiction.

There are groups in Manhattan, and I (maybe??) will return there multiple times a week, but they don’t work logistically (meet in late evening/night, long after the last ferry home). I’m sure tried-and-true ways exist to form a writing group. I need to research them.

Until then, it’s still time to double down on guardrails, outlines, pre-work.