A week ago my wife, my son and I went to a used bookstore called Thrifty Joe's Books & Music.. I wanted to find a reference book to help me landscape the dozens of trees, cacti, shrubs and other fauna on our new property. But one of the great things about a used bookstore is that it’s a great place to discover something new.
My son and I were thumbing through a book called something like A List of Likes. And it was exactly as advertised; a book full of lists from a variety of contributors that all started with the words ‘I like....’
One contributor listed all the things they liked about their cat. Someone else listed all the foods they liked. It was a very simple premise but compelling because every list in the anthology came from an amazing space of appreciation. I resonated with it because I sometimes forget to appreciate the things that are good and great about life while I focus instead on things that are troubling me, or stressful.
I am a throwback. I like things made in the era when the solution to problems was resolved with mechanic ingenuity and not electronic or computer technology. Here’s one of those things I appreciate.
I write with a fountain pen. As difficult as it can be to read sometimes, I like the way my handwriting looks on the page. I like how it reflects the pressure and flow of my writing. I like that my writing has my personality, a style that is identifiable as mine. I like that this style has not changed as long as I have been writing. You can look at something I wrote in pen twenty years ago and compare it to what I'm writing right now and you would easily be able to connect the two pieces as coming from the same person.
I like sealed, disposable cartridges for my fountain pen. I like blue ink. I like the differences in inks from different cartridges, different production batches, different manufacturers; some vibrant mid blue, some watery and weak, some deep and dark. I like how sometimes when you start with a new cartridge, the ink color shifts over the first few hundred words; starting out dark, Indigo, night-sky blue then fading to whatever this cartridge’s normal tone is.
I like capping the pen every time I pause in my writing. I like the tactile, crisp, click of the pen’s cap seating and unseating from the barrel as I remove and replace it.
I like the simple but elegant engineering of a fountain pen. Ink pulled through a narrow channel along the nib through capillary action, rolling through the nib's tip, drawn onto the paper, pulling more ink through for the next pen stroke.
I like using a fountain pen for all writing, no matter how mundane. I like writing ten pages in my notebook as much as I like jotting short notes. I like how my fountain-pen lets me leave a distinct and permanent mark on Post-It notes, on scraps of paper, on reports, on bills, on notebook pages.
I love my modern fountain pen. It is made in Germany by LAMY out of aluminum and plastic and stainless steel. It cost less than $40. I love that it is a working tool and not simply an ornament. I love writing in fountain pen.
We live ten miles from an outdoor mall called the Westgate Entertainment District. It houses the Phoenix Cardinals football stadium, the Arizona Coyotes rink. an outlet mall with a hundred shops, a restaurant district and a movie theater. We frequent the theater because we're a fan of the large-format and 3D movies and they house the closest IMAX screen. Westgate is also home to Shane's Rib Shack where they make the best salad for miles (Chicken Tender with Apple Vinagarette). There's even a great outdoor space with a water feature for kids to play in and live music on the plaza every weekend that Westgate is a bit of a draw for people on the weekends (especially when there's an event at one of the stadiums).
My wife and I both in our creative space right now. I am working on a new story. She is creating art. We both share a passion for photography. Although we come at it differently and find different things interesting (she shoots people and animals and living things, I shoot objects and space and geometry), we spent an hour at Westgate at Sunset today as a way to share creativity.
It's been five months since I wrote consistently, since I finished the draft of my novel. I wanted to let it cool and have my wife read and give her feedback before diving into a new draft. I had hoped to work on a new story in the meantime but haven't started anything yet.
She finished reading and gave some amazing feedback. Most of it ripped open flaws in the story, the biggest of which is that the main character is too thin, too weak, too dependent on others for her to get behind. "I don't like him," she said. This is a big problem. If your reader doesn't care for the main character, nothing that happens too him seems important and the story has no chance of holding a reader.
She told me where things went wrong in the story for her. They match up with the point in the story where I stopped writing every day without an outline started to plot, plan and think my way to the end of the book. It is like I had two minds. One, the creative one, the playful imaginative, fearless, quirky, funny, dark one wrote the first one-hundred pages. The second, my intellectual, conservative, numbers-driven, working-man's mind took over and dug into the story to work out how to solve all of the seeming problems my creative mind had setup, only letting the creative mind open up for short bursts to fill out the words according to its plan. For lack of engagement, my creative mind went into hibernation.
I'm not angry about the feedback. I'm grateful for it. It helped me realize where the joy in writing lives; in that creative mind. I want to write from the creative mind. I want to explore what the creative mind is capable of. This realization leaves me with a choice to make about the current novel; re-write it or set it aside and let a new story come. And just so five more months doesn't pass without anything to show for it, I need to make that decision very soon.
To open myself to the creative mind and let it flow and fill pages, I understand that I keep the intellectual mind away until it's time to rewrite and polish or figure out how to find an audience for the work. The fact that I haven't working on a new writing project has been bothering me so I have been working on realigning myself with my creative nature; writing in my journal, exploring the world around me with a camera (the images in this post are from a trip to Richmond and Virginia Beach, Virginia my wife half for business and half to celebrate our anniversary), absorbing the world.
It worked. A story spun up out the things we saw and talked about on the trip. I started writing it today.
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?