It's been almost sixty days since I last wrote something for this blog. Amazing. I can't account for the time. I remember writing the last post then getting distracted with the re-writing of my novel then typing in the edits then procrastinating the last few scenes I need to add and edit then second-guessing the story. And suddenly, I look back at my blog and the last post was dated almost sixty days ago.
Time is currency. You spend it to increase the value of your lifetime (the value to yourself, your experience as a human being, and the current state of the Universe).
When I was young, my perspective on a lifetime was different than it is now. A lifetime was this expanse too wide to comprehend; a desert or ocean of seemingly uncrossable distance that revealed nothing of what existed on the other side. I saw time as a limitless resource.
I never used to have the sense of suddenly lost time I just got looking at the date of my last blog post, that realization that some percentage of my life, has passed by and what I have to show for it doesn't add up.
When I was young, I was forward-focused. I was happiest imagining what was to come. I remember being seventeen and about to graduate high school and looking at a calendar and seeing the change of a millennium ahead. I knew that when we entered the new century, I would be thirty-two years old. An adult. Mature. As sold as my mother when I first took notice of her age. The age of a fully-grown person at the peak of realizing their promise. The millennium It was a flag in the distance, a marker of the future, an oasis that I imagined was surrounded by what I wanted my mature, adult life to be.
Today, I know that time is not limitless. I know that we live in an hourglass. Time is a mountain of sand we live on the top of. Every day, more of it falls away. Every day, we sink further to the bottom. One day, we'll have nothing left to stand on and this existence, the one I know as 'Stephen the writer' comes to an end.
The year 2000 is now as far gone as it was ahead when I was seventeen. I can see the far side of the expanse and know that my arrival there is inevitable. I have still yet to accomplish one of the goals I used to imagine I would have accomplished by now. Watching another two months slip by without anything to show for that time makes me sad. And angry. But neither of those emotions can sit at my computer and produce words that could march me towards my goals so I will have to set them aside and get back on the path.
PS: The picture above is from the 2012 Tour de France. Talk about looking back and celebrating the experience you accumulate during a lifetime. I have been a fan of professional cycling for as long as I have been an adult. I've worked in the cycling industry for more than ten years, many of them connected to websites and magazines that cover the sport. Yet 2012 was the first chance I had to visit the Tour. My friend Paul was turning 50 and put a trip together with five friends to ride in some of the most storied Tour de France terrain. One day, the Tour passed right by the small village where our bed and breakfast was located. An hour before the race passes by, there is a caravan of promotional vehicles, pimped-out rolling billboards staffed with smiling young marketers tossing trinkets and sweets. My friends and I parked ourselves on an empty stretch of road, spaced fifty feet apart, and collected a travel bag full of swag. The photo is of the Festina watch company's caravan vehicle. I can't remember what they threw out. It wasn't a watch. It was an amazing ten days. This was a wonderful moment.
When I first started writing fiction again, knowing I am faced with a new publishing landscape, I wanted to get educated on the independent-publishing world and find models to learn from. I Googled "best-selling self-published authors" and one of the first names that came up was Hugh Howey. Howey's is a top-selling, independent, Amazon-focused author; an author who bypassed traditional publishing to put his books directly online, and succeeded.
He had a lot to say about the choice to self-publish and reading and listening about his experiences was a great primer on the new publishing world. But I didn't know him as an author. When I read the description of his fiction, I could see that he writes Young Adult science-fiction. I typically read police procedural, murder mystery, legal thriller, Stephen King, non-fiction related to my job; stuff like that. YA was never my thing and when I do read science fiction, I drift towards the classics (Arthur C. Clarke). So I passed on reading Howey's fiction at first.
But a question kept nagging at me. A traditional publisher has an infrastructure to, supposedly, assure a level of professionalism for their products. They have a process for sorting books they think will make good products from books they think won't make good products. They have a process and personnel (editors, copy-editing, packaging, marketing, promotion, distribution) for turning those good books into publishable products. Can the product of a single author working from home, even if he or she hires a professional editor and cover designer, hold up in the marketplace defined by traditionally-published work?
I enjoyed listening to Howey talk about world building and his experience self publishing but I started to feel that I needed to understand him as an author to put everything he was saying in context, to see if his product, his independently-published books, hold up to the traditionally-published standard I'm accustomed to as a reader.
I downloaded the first of Howey's Molly Fyde YA series, Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue. Molly Fyde is a 17-year old naval cadet. Her mother died when she was young. Her father went missing, with his private space ship, seven years before. A friend of her fathers, a Navy Admiral, looks out for her. But all the other students in flight school are boys and she has a tough time. The story opens with her fighting against humankind's most vicious enemy, the Drenard, in a battle simulation. The simulator has been tampered with and she fails the test so miserably that she is kicked out of school. She doesn't fit well in regular high school and is soon is recruited by her benefactor for a mission to recover her missing father's spaceship, which has been located on a distant planet. She is partnered with her flight-school crush and things go wrong with the mission almost immediately.
I won't give you much more detail than that because the story takes so many turns, I don't want to spoil the read for you but my first impressions were to confirm the young adult slant (lack of bad language, the main character's youthful pining for a strapping male peer) and there were a couple of rough language patches that needed one more edit, but it wasn't long before I was hooked into this story.
Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue moves quickly, like an action film. Howey leads you from scene to scene without giving away what's coming next. Then he makes what's coming next so satisfying, he effectively locks you in to having to know how the whole story turns out. He leads the reader down a path, throws up an obstacle, has the characters wrestle with the challenge, then twists and turns it in another direction altogether.
It's a fun book. It reads fast, light, and cinematic, like I imagine a good YA novel should. Even though I can't directly relate to the experiences of a teenage girl, I liked the characters immensely. Molly Fyde and her crush/comrade pick up a cast of alien cohorts along the way, every one different and interesting but with qualities to admire and a nature or you just want to figure out. And every new character adds depth and dimension to the story. The book constantly twists and turns in interesting ways. Even at the very end, almost the last page, Howey introduces something that made me say "Holy Cow, I didn't see that coming.'
Howey also does a great job with the science of his fiction. His explanations for how the Universe is populated, how hyperdrive works, how gravity affects travelers on space ships and the technology employed to protect them are all satisfying; enough science to dispel the nagging thought of how this or that is possible but not so much as to detract from the action.
Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue is the first in a four-book series. The short series concpet is a repeating trend in independent author fiction. Usually, the first book in a series is a hook, sold cheap or given away and written to encourage you to invest in the rest of the series. I was worried that this conscious effort to create a series (rather than tell a story over one fully-developed novel) would feel like it was reading short fiction but Molly Fyde and the Parsona Resuce is a full-length novel. Its 400 + pages on the Kindle (I don't know what that translates into on paper, but it felt like a full-length book). It's a satisfying stand-alone story; Enough action, drama, tension, and twists to keep me going. And the hook was set; I'm part way into the second book already Moly Fyde and the Land of Light, which already feels like it was written by a more mature author - richer and more accomplished, the product of someone in command of their storytelling.
Hugh Howey opened me up to reading something I wouldn't have if I hadn't been exposed to him in my search to become a published novelist. I'm glad he did because now I'm a Howey fan and I can't wait to finish the series, then put his next books my reading list.
Have you read any of Hugh Howey's work? What do you think?
I just had my ass kicked. My nose is broken. There is blood down my chin. I have a gash on my head, my vision is filled with red. I can't think straight. I'm lying on the ground looking up at the stars wondering what the hell just happened to me but the truth is I know the answer; I was attacked by a beast. An angry beast. Angry because it hasn't gotten what it needed from me. Angry because I haven't fed it. Angry because I haven't worked it. Angry because it needs to be doing what it needs to be doing and I am the thing its way.
It's been a busy week and a half. Work has taken over my life. For good, positive reasons, but a complete takeover nevertheless. I've had to put in a few 14-hour days and writing has been pushed to the side. Work hasn't just consumed all my available time, it has wiped out my brain capacity. Looking back at the week, I can say without regret that there were no hours that I wasted, that could have been used instead to sneak in some writing time.
I simply lost my writing momentum. I am behind on my plan to have the first pass through my new novel done by the end of January. And even though the project is over and I am free to blend some writing time back into my day, I am having trouble getting started. In fact, these are the first words I have written in a week. And the Beast has been chirping away at me.
Four months ago, for my birthday, my daughter bought me a gift certificate to her favorite tattoo parlor. I had the artist put a typewriter on my forearm with a page that reads A Writer Writes clearly above it. It is the first thing I see every morning when I wake up. It's a constant reminder of the idea I had at the time that I would allow myself the dream of writing fiction again.
Every day since I got it, I have appreciated the tattoo, especially while writing my first draft of the new novel. It was a reminder to get to work, a reminder that the work would not get done unless my butt was in a chair and my fingers were on the keyboard, that I could not call myself a writer unless I was actively writing.
Today, the tattoo mocks me. No longer is it a friendly and uplifting prod to get me started in the morning. Now, it's a sour note that clangs in my brain everytime I see it. You're not a writer, it says. You're not writing. You're not moving a story forward. You're not hitting your goal.
The Beast is right to be angry. I'm angry too. Which is why being beaten by the Beast so ferociously hurts beyond the physical pain.
What the Beast doesn't know is that I love him. I don't suppose you can imagine, when he sees my face after ripping me apart, after breaking my bones, drawing my blood, that I could feel this way, but I do love him. I need him. And he needs me.
Tomorrow, I'm going to feed the Beast and this tattoo is going to feel right again.
What do you to get back on track when life derails you from your writing?
I have mixed feelings about Sycamore Row by John Grisham. One one hand, I was invested in the outcome - I read it to the end and wanted to know how the story resolved - which is the joy of reading in a nutshell. On the other hand, I was disappointed many times with what felt like weak and convenient plotting and an overabundance of nostalgia for a previous novel that did nothing to move the story forward.
But let's start at the beginning. Wealthy but reclusive businessman Seth Hubbard hangs himself from a tree on a remote corner of his land after church one Sunday morning. A white man in the late stages of a rough cancer, Hubbard leaves specific instructions for local hotshot lawyer Jake Brigance (of A Time to Kill fame) to ferociously defend his last-minute handwritten will, a will that negates all earlier versions and cuts off everyone in his family to leave his fortune to his black caregiver. There is an immediate and vicious legal contest over the will. Was this handwritten document truly the 'will' of the dead man? Was Hubbard of sound mind? Was he under the influence of the therapies he was receiving to manage his pain and incapable of making rational choices about his estate? Did his caregiver manipulate the dying old man for personal gain?
Enter a cast of colorful local characters from A time to Kill, sprinkle in some nostalgic backstory, add a gaggle of out-of-town, big-city lawyers representing everyone who believes they should have a hand in Hubbard's fortune, a cantankerous judge who wants to control the process, a randomly-selected jury to add uncertainty in the outcome and you have the setting for an intriguing David and Goliath legal drama.
I am a fan of Grisham novels. He's on my list of go-to of authors, always a good read for an airplane ride, the kind of book I can get lost in. I especially liked the premise of Sycamore Row, the legal argument that need to be resolved. Grisham teases drama out of the legal process in a way that makes you feel like an insider to courtroom dynamics without crushing you in jargon and banal technicalities. He knows how to set up the tension of a trial (with its unknown outcome) and keep it so beautifully hidden you want to hang around and find out how things resolve. I was satisfied by the final resolution in this story. Very satisfied.
But, there were problems with the book.
I wish Grisham didn't violate the show-don't-tell rule so many times in this book. It was distracting. Part of the joy of reading mysteries is trying to figure them out as you go. Grisham wrote amazing scenes in Sycamore Row depicting action, showing us what's going on, letting us puzzle to work out what was happening, what the meaning of the scene was. But then he'd have scene after scene where he just spits the mystery of the moment out loud. Too many pages were used to tell us the implications of this characters actions or the possible scenarios spinning out of that action when he could have simply spent the time showing these things play out those consequences.
I also wish Grisham hadn't included characters and story lines that didn't move the story forward. For example, there were a dozen or antagonists early in the story (mostly lawyers in opposition of the main character) but most of them resolved themselves away half-way through without much fanfare or consequence. At the end, I found myself looking back at these characters and wondering why they had been there. The story would have been stronger with fewer antagonists and more time spent developing their depth or increasing the tension they introduce.
There was another example of a story line that could have been cut; in of A Time to Kill, Jake Briggance's house is burned down. In Sycamore Row, what happens to that house (a fight with his insurance company and an offer from a friend of a great deal on an equivalent home) is wrapped up too easily, too conveniently in a story line that didn't strengthen the main plot in any way. What happened to Jake's house could be have been a one-paragraph story note early in the book with no change in the new story's outcome.
Grisham also opens Sycamore Row with echoes of the threats Jake received from A Time to Kill (racially-charged threats, some fulfilled, of violence). But those threats never manifest. Nor does Grisham explain why not. Grisham also involves characters from A Time to Kill that don't add further the current story. My only conclusion of these plot challenges is that Girsham had mixed motives for writing this story. He had a compelling legal drama to write, set in a favored town and featuring a favored character. But he also was trying to write things into the story to make fans of A Time to kill happy. These two motivations pulled awkwardly at each other throughout the book. Strip them away and Sycamore Row is Grisham at his best.
I enjoyed the story and if you're a Grisham fan or a fan of the book A Time to Kill, I recommend you read Sycamore Row. But wish Grisham could have taken time to come back and revise it with a more dispassionate eye.
Sometimes, when I'm moving about my normal day, answering emails at the office, making proposals for customers, running errands with the family, there's a voice inside of me asking me when I am going to sit my butt back down in a chair and write again.
I call this voice Beast because he can be cantankerous, demanding, insistent, whiny, and downright violent if I don’t find a way to yield to his will. Beats is only quiet when I am writing.
Beast looks a lot like me. He is my height but more broadly shouldered. his hair is longer and shaggy most of the time. Beast shaves every once in a while. If he wants to. Never because he’s told to.
Beast drinks coffee; grinds the beans himself and cares what it taste like but he takes it black, from a drip coffee-maker (never an espresso machine, a french press, or god forbid, a Kurig).
Beast eats whatever the hell he wants, but it's usually high-quality, never junk, and good for you. But if Beast wants a doughnut, he will have a doughnut. It just better be well-made, fresh, and not priced like it's wrapped in gold foil.
Beast doesn't work out to stay in shape he is in shape because he works. Hard.
Beast doesn't smoke. But he could if he wanted to and you would have absolutely no say over when and where he did.
Beast doesn't swear because he has actual English words to use to get across what he's thinking and feeling but he sure the fuck could swear all he wants any fucking time he god-damned well pleases.
Beast doesn't watch television. Beast thinks television is the spawn of the devil, a vacuous waste of time, the creative opposite to the novel.
Beast thinks a well-made mechanical thing of beauty is not a fashion statement. Technology is great and useful but a thirty-year-old pick-up truck he can fix himself and a well-maintained motorcycle are preferred over the latest iAnything.
If you bump Beast in a public place, he will punch you in the face. But only if you're a dick about it when you realize what you've done. And he is smaller than you so getting punched in the face by him would be embarrassing.
Beast rarely drinks alcohol because he chooses not to waste his time and mental energy on it. And he doesn’t buy into the myth that you have to be a drunk to write. Writing is the act of sitting your ass in a chair and making words happen in front of you. You don;t need to be drunk to do that.
Beast writes and his biggest complaint is that I, with my day job and family obligations and errands and to do lists and projects, are in his way. Beast writes for Beast and no-one else and doesn't give a crap what anyone thinks about him. Although he would love to get nice reviews of his fiction.
I love Beast. Beast just wants to live his life and work on his writing, to finish the latest novel and get humping on the next one. All of which he can do when I let him take over. I need to let Beast take over more often.