Writing

This post first appeared in Organic Coffee Haphazardly. You ought to stop by that site and meander on through the literate entries. 

 

writing

He answers the question each time he raises his pen to paper. The story came before the word. It is a rhythm, the storytelling. Each cluster of thoughts breeds opinions on where to go next. Choosing a path, he keeps the flow going. He follows his instinct not worrying about pretty. Just let it flow.

It is his addiction; stringing words together. He has been there many times feeding the craving that defies rules of prose and punctuation, yet appears from nowhere to take up residence on the page. Like a fine piece of art, this first draft is the sketch that defines the composition. It tells the rudimentary story. Countless edits later that story will be the painting he envisions. Not today. Today the story is a new idea. A colt trying to stand on spindly legs, falling but getting up again while gaining strength with each failure.

The coffee gets cold. A refill is not on the horizon for the words have control. No interruption. An element of backstory emerges as he maneuvers a character and wonders why she did that. The pen moves to the margin to jot a quick note and capture the fleeting thought, phrased in a shorthand he hopes he will remember in the weeks to come when he returns to this page. A memory causes a smile as he recalls wondering if this paper with such wide margins was going to be useful or a waste of space. He has created entire worlds in less than ten words in those margins. The depth of his characters lives there. It is a soup of partial memories and unformed plot lines that are the writer’s equivalent of biographical fiction.

Forward. The pen moves him where he needs to go. Ink flows from the nib to the paper providing a tactile feel for each letter with a sound that applauds progress. Pushed forward under his control the pen yields surprising turns. How often, when he feels he has a clear view of the story ahead, does the pen take him in a different direction? A line of site interrupted by an obstacle set there with cruel subconscious intention, reminding him that life is seldom a straight line. And the challenge of the obstacle lets him show his characters in a new light. They are as surprised as he, and that surprise finds its way into the syncopation of syllables, creating an energy of anticipation. ‘Yes,’ he thinks. That could happen, and the flow continues. Fresh and alive.

For a moment he wonders where the need to tell the story comes from. What ancient, prehistoric challenge had man faced that made storytelling a survival trait. It is nothing but constrained lies bundled together. Then he wonders if a simpleton, binary thinking computer, that is only as good as the fiction of the code that man has created for it, can be induced to create a new thought or even polish up an old one? Maybe some day they will rediscover the analog computer and find the secret to artificial intelligence. The secret of infusing a survival skill into a computer. All this in a mental flash that is more image than prose.

That is what he does. He is less a writer than a transcriber of the images that form in his mind. The stories don’t form in sentences and words. They form as high definition movies in his mind where he can rewind and fast forward instantaneously until he settles on the scene that will be transcribed. A change in dialog or location to suit his will. The will to tell a good story. It is magic and he doesn’t overthink it. He let’s the magic move him. Understanding it too deeply might ruin it for him, but that thought leads him to ponder more questions. The cycle continues and each turn of his mental crank reveals more of the story. His pen scratches more words on the page.

Writing is presentation of discovery.

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Four Things I Wish I had Known Before I Started Writing

You Don’t Need a Compass

When I was in fifth grade I sat at my sister’s Smith Corona typewriter and started punching out a story. It started with an accident during a Gemini spacecraft training exercise. There had been a news story about how they were training and it caught my imagination. I recognized the kernel of a story. And then I stopped. Because I didn’t know what was going to happen next.

I left the page in the typewriter and went off to do whatever a fifth grader does. My older brother happened by the short piece and read it. At dinner he said, “When are you going to finish that story. I want to know what happens.”

I shrugged. That is as far as the story went. Compost in some landfill in Pennsylvania.

compass

I give you permission to start writing without knowing where you are going.  Actually, I encourage it. Let the characters tell you where they want to go and what they think. If you let them drive the story, you’ll get a much better end result than if you start to think about how it will end. That doesn’t mean you can’t outline and plan. It means you need to listen to what is going on. Don’t force and ending or a plot shift.

In my first published book I had included some technology that I thought was cool.  It was like a Siri who did real time editing.  The book is in first person, so I thought it’d be fun to have him getting frustrated trying to get technology to work. Since it was a techno-thriller, wouldn’t the contrast be perfect?

Wrong. My first real beta reader said that whole little process sucked and diverted from the story. That was a great lesson. I had found something I wanted to include but it was not something my characters wanted or needed.  When I got rid of it, it was like moving from 720p to 1080p. The story became high def.

Jump in. Start putting words on paper and introduce yourself to the characters in your head. I virtually hang around with a lot of writers and the successful ones always talk about their characters demanding them to do certain things or surprising them with plot twists they hadn’t considered. It’s true. As a writer you need to open yourself up to the characters in your head and let them run.

Pen and Ink, Keys and Ribbons

Which brings me to input. I was lucky that my first attempt at writing was on a keyboard of a manual typewriter. I wasn’t a great typist and that keyboard forced me to think of each word, misspelled often, as the key hit the paper. That is what I know in retrospect.

Decades later I decided to give writing a novel a try. Since I liked sci-fi and was a technologist by occupation, I envisioned a space opera (I didn’t know that term at the time). On my computer with MSWord I set off crafting a story that I still love. Trouble lurked in the software. Word allows you to find many reasons not to actually write. You can delete, rearrange, format, reformat, change font, change font, change font, insert section breaks, insert page breaks, create a table of contents. You get it. I was trying to craft a final, physical version of my book in the WYSIWYG capabilities of a word processor and losing the story.

My daughter, who, as editor, had led her high school newspaper to a national award, made a comment to me one day that “using a manual typewriter is a great way to overcome writer’s block.” I didn’t have writer’s block. I had writer’s interference. But I thought I’d give it a try.

Fast forward to my post e-Bay purchases and I transitioned to a manual typewriter. I haven’t looked back.  I also use pen and paper and always have a small notebook with me. But the best rhythm I strike is when I am at the keyboard of my trusty Olympia SM9 – the ultimate in manual typing.

My Oly SM9

My Oly SM9

The beauty of hand crafting your first draft is that you can’t get diverted from the writing. Sure, you can cross out and backspace, but that it a laborious process and it is much easier to move forward. Plus, on a manual keyboard you can only type so fast. Which forces you to think of each word, and gives you just the right amount of latency to have time to think about the next sentence clicking in your mind.

pen and clairfontaine

It is your first draft. It is the draft just for you. It is strewn with crap and vile writing, but don’t worry about it. Under the covers of your lousy prose is the story that wants to come out. That story will become crystal clear and beautiful once that raw diamond is polished by the jeweler.

50 Shades of Editing

Great writing can be crippled by poor editing. Here’s a 3-star review I got for my book. It is one of the best reviews I have ever received.

This is a SIX star story. The quality of the writing easily rates FIVE stars. However, the edition I read had apparently not been copy-edited nor proof-read. This diminished the pleasure in the reading. Imagine “puisant” in place of “pissant” and “passed” for “past.” As one doesn’t love the child dressed and polished for a party any less for turning up scratched, smuged and muddy, I still look forward to more works from this master storyteller – wordsmith.

I confess. I self-edited my book and published it on my own. I did have a very expert proofreader go through it twice, but some things slipped through anyway.

editing generic

Working with a good editor is like getting involved in a BDSM relationship. There’s even a contract involved, but it isn’t like the one in 50 Shades.  It is painful, but necessary. A good editor will understand your voice and force you to make it clear. They don’t rewrite your work. They find where you need to rewrite it and help you fix it. My editor (and I do take that with a lot of personal ownership) is dSavannah George. What struck me when she and I first talked about working together was her approach. It resonated with me and has proven exactly the kind of editing I need.

So, Sav is editing my content and when she is done I am going to enlist a copy editor to proofread everything. I don’t want to have a “puisant” insert itself when I really want a “pissant.” (For that I’ll blame autocorrect.)

There is a side to self-publishing that is reflected in my multiple 5 and 4 star reviews. All of those seasoned readers looked passed the editing mistakes and loved the story. I call it the cell phone effect of indie publishing.

In the days before cell phones, our calls were exceptional. You picked up the phone connected to a land line and you got dial tone. If there was any scratchiness, you called the phone company and they fixed it. Solid quality. Cell phones taught us to accept less than exceptional quality because we got great convenience.

Traditional publishing subjected books to many edits before they hit the brick and mortar store. To find a typo was like finding a four-leaf clover (1 in 162,000). Now, I think we have grown to accept formatting and spelling issues along the way. If they stay below a certain level of obnoxiousness, then we ignore them and read on. After all, we have a queue lined up in our e-readers.

Write Where You Live

In my thirties I had this great idea I got from one of the women I dated. Her mother read a lot of romance novels and bought hundreds of them a year. That seemed like easy money to me, so I started to pen a romance novel.

Go back to the top of this post and you’ll know why it didn’t go anywhere. But there was more. I had no clue what I was writing about even though my friend gave my a typical synopsis of a successful story. I had never read a romance novel and I made no effort to understand that genre. It wasn’t in my blood.

When I took to writing in earnest, I chose areas that I felt comfortable in – sci-fi and techno fiction. That doesn’t mean I won’t extend myself into other genres or create my own – I am working on a sci-fi erotica right now. But wherever I go will be because it is something I want to write about. Something that makes me explore areas of interest and characters that are compelling.  Hell, my sci-fi might turn into a romance if that is where the characters want to take it, but I’ll put my own twist on it.

Don’t write about something because you think it is what will make you money or what will be popular or what someone else suggests you do. Write because you are compelled to tell a story.

For that matter, don’t classify you story to a genre until you are forced to in the publication and promotional phase. Just let it rip, then rip it up and make it better. What I am really asking you to do is not judge yourself before you even put pen to paper. Don’t think of your story as being in a class of stories. Think of it as a story that needs telling and you are the best person in the world to tell it.

Because you are. One word at a time,

As always, I would love to hear from you and get your comments.

Remember. Run free. Run easy.

A Conspiracy of Women

Something sinister is afoot.

I feel compelled to warn my fellow men. And I mean men, since women are already conspiring. Let me deconstruct that thought.

As men we are quite comfortable with seeing and understanding conspiracy, usually, in video games, politics and between cubicles in our offices. We do not have the genetic code to recognize conspiratorial activities among women. Mostly because we are interested in having sex with them, so our depth of thought regarding their actions mostly stops at whether or not we are going to get laid.

The conspiratorial hand was tipped by a friend of mine, @allieburkebooks. She is the queen of selfies and quite a wordcrafter.

allie

proxy

Anyway, a post of hers almost slipped by my unnoticed. If it hadn’t been for the narcotic effect of the oxycodone I was on because of my hip surgery I might not have become aware of these machinations. In her post Allie commented how thankful she was for all the strong and supportive women she had connected with. In my state, I was able to see what this really meant. There was a conspiracy of women. Somehow they had deformed social media to make alliances and tender support across the ether to share stories of success and offer consolation and advice to each other.

Once I unmasked this dastardly endeavor I began to see it everywhere. Following the trail left by Allie led me to a nexus of activity. I saw this woman frequently on social media and it surprised me that I could have missed all the signs. So clever of her to hide in plain sight. Among her many virtual personas the one I first encountered was @RachelintheOC.

rachelintheoc

 

Sure, she looks innocent enough and professes to be a social media expert, but her real intention is to use her multiple personas to align women of all makes and models in such a way that they feel good about themselves and gain a sense of power through self worth. So devious. So blatant.  I was so upset when I realized her true intentions. I mean, at one time she gave me sage advice on how to improve my online presence. Of course, I ignored it because, well, I’m a man and following advice wasn’t going to get me laid. It is kinda like asking me to read a map.

Through the clarity instilled by the opiates in my blood I saw that she was helping women to help themselves. Even covering her tracks by throwing occasional assistance to men. She started discussions and threads to help women understand their emotional states and face their inner fears and uncertainties. And encouraging women to be honest about those emotional things that we men spend 28% or our caloric energy on keeping bottled up. I saw her influence on the young and impressionable mind of Allie Burke. She is helping create a generation who know what they want and are content to help each other find ways to be happy in their own skin.

I was so devastated that I decided to ignore it and do something I liked instead. That was running. Since I was having hip issues, I couldn’t actually run, so I went to my running magazine, Runner’s World, to find solace. To my surprise I saw an announcement that they were creating a new ezine, called Zelle, about running. Except is was running for women with a focus on how the activity helps build personal strength. The subterfuge continues. This time the instigator is @EJComeau.  Don’t let the cute dimples fool you. She is dedicated to promoting the conspiracy and showing any who care to listen how running can improve the quality of life in many ways.

ejcomeau

These women only marginally care about times, pace and distance. Many are accomplished, world class runners, but most are just normal – whatever that is.

In anguish I slipped into Twitter again and tried to find a twitter crush to waste time and develop hormonal alignment with. Instead, I found other women who were doing more than just running to find their inner strength. Sure, there were some like @SheRunsforLove who uses running to develop strength beyond the purely physical.

sherunsforlove

Then the is @muscleboundmama and a host of other women who pump iron. I mean serious iron. They don’t glisten, they fucking sweat when they workout. Furthermore, she coaches on fitness. Do you know what that means? She is helping other people become self-confident. Men and Women.  muscleboundmama

Here’s the deal. When you ask them for help or input, they just give it to you. I mean, I tested it by throwing our some questions and I got honest, heartfelt responses. Not the wiseass, half assed, intellectualized, palp that I was expecting.

It is diabolical!

My head reeled. The conspiracy was all around me and there was nothing I could do. It was revealed. All out in the open and I was powerless to stop it. I had but one option left.

I grabbed a beer and turned on Netflix to watch a marathon of Arrow because the IT chic, Felicity, is pretty hot.

Felicity

 

POST SCRIPT:

Just in case someone doesn’t get my sense of humor, all of the women mentioned in this post (sans Felicity) are real and are friends of mine. They are amazing, strong and smart in their own individual ways and I am graced to know them.

It’s Black and White

I’ve decided to rekindle my photographic eye by taking black & white images through a 24mm wide angle prime lens. That was basically the rig I learned that basics of exposure and lighting doing. I had a trusty Nikon FE2 35mm film camera with a 24mm wide angle on it. I used other lenses, but that was the rig that I used most. I still have it and it feels like comfort in my hands. I don’t use it because film is basically gone. I miss film and I don’t miss it. In my darkroom film was messy and smelly and chemically. There was so much waste product just to get to the print you wanted. All of that waste cost money. Throw away paper, film and chemicals. Modern digital sensors with massive memory cards and great software for photo processing allow for fantastic image creation and are more environmentally friendly.

I now have a Nikon D700, a pro level digital camera, and recently picked up a nice 24mm autofocus lens at a reasonable price. There is something about that degree of wide angle which makes you think about what you are shooting. And the fact that it is a prime lens, meaning it only has one focal length, you have to physically move to get the frame right.  That means you have to think about composition and look with a wide angle frame of reference.

Photo Dec 19, 3 06 02 PM

As I started to take shots I realized that advanced technology was getting in my way. You see, taking a good B&W image with film required understanding where the darks and lights were in relation to each other and adjusting the exposure accordingly. There is a system developed by Ansel Adams called ‘The Zone System’ and it provides a way of metering parts of the image and then, based on the tonal range of the image, adjusting the exposure and development.  The reason this was so important is because the actual luminance has a range that is much greater than what film can record. The Zone System allowed you to expose and image and develop it in a way that compressed the range and gave you an accurate representation of what you visualized.  It is one of the reasons Ansel’s images are so deep and rich.

To do the exposure correctly you need a good light meter. Yes, the metering systems on modern cameras are phenomenal. But they are geared for color images. IN the above image, the device sitting next to my D700 is a Sekonic light meter. I use it for flash and normal light exposures when I want great accuracy. It is a one degree spot meter, so I can take a reading off of a very small part of the image.

In the Zone

Let me show you what I mean.  Here is a shot of my Kindle Paperwhite sitting on the kitchen counter. The leather cover of the Kindle is black and has a nice texture to it. I wanted that aspect to show against the marble grain of the countertop. The notebook is a deep blue cover. Using the metering system of the D700, which is very advanced, I got this image. (Sorry it is out of focus, but that doesn’t alter the metering.)

kindle averaged

It’s a decent shot. I mean as far as the exposure goes. I wasn’t composing anything artistic. I was trying to prove a point.

Now, using the zone system, I measured the Kindle’s cover and placed that luminance at a lower range along the grey scale. It should look black, not dark grey. All light meters measure in a way that the exposure they provide will average out to an 18% grey scale. Which is about where the blue spiral notebook is in the above shot.

Because your mind is good at adjusting, you “know” from this shot that the Kindle is black, even though it shows up as a dark grey.

By adjusting the exposure to place the cover as black, not dark grey, I got this image:

kindle zoned

It is a subtle difference, but now you really see that the cover is black and that it has a deep texture. You also pick up a little more texture in the marble and coffee cup. It is a much more realistic interpretation of what I pre-visualized. Now you know why Ansel Adams art was so appealing.

What’s the Point?

I am a technologist. I have been most of my adult life. My income stems from my ability to see where technology is going and to make progress in bringing it to fruition. I have such great appreciation for the disruptive effect of technology and how that disruption breeds new opportunities, if you are willing to take some risk.

The trouble is, that layers of technology can obscure some basic understanding. Recording light on film or through digital sensors works a certain way. Our technology doesn’t change that. In this instant it seems like technology tries to take our intellect out of the picture. It stems from making it convenient, but what is the cost? Over the past few days I’ve had to stretch my sense of perception again, waking up old synapses that understood how to shift and move apertures and shutter speeds. The end result is I feel part of the pictures I am taking. I feel more like I can express what I am trying to visualize, not just snap a shot. I compose. I think about the light. I place reflectivity where I want it to be. I fail a lot, but when I succeed, the image is what I envisioned.

My point is that a broad application of technology is not always good. There are times, like with my computer assisted hip replacement, when technology has massive benefits. There are other times when technology insulates us from understanding and feeling more. Technical running shoes seem a good example of that. They eliminate the feel of the ground under our feet and shunt the muscle development in our feet leading to numerous biomechanical issues that we then throw even more technology at. There is a similar issue in writing. Advanced publishing software and digital book services allow anyone who can type into a computer to publish an e-book. That is a great thing, except many writers forego the process of having their work edited for content and format. Getting that critical feedback and incorporating the feedback into their work is what makes a good author a great author. Not all feedback is correct, but all feedback makes you think about what you have done and what you have said. Don’t forget the basics, regardless of how easy it is to create the content.

Would I eliminate the advanced light meter on my D700? Absolutely not. But I spend time understanding why it works and where its limits are. Afterall, I can switch to manual mode anytime and override the programmed exposure. I often do, but I can do it because I understand light. I understand the basis for why photography works.

Don’t just accept technology. Ask why. Dig underneath the covers. Understanding is freedom. Few things are ever just black and white.

Run free. Run smooth.

Leaves on Fire

I learned photography shooting black and white film. My go to camera was my trusty 35mm Nikon FE2. I must have pushed thousands of rolls of film through that little beast and is still works. I don’t do film anymore, but I can’t part with that camera.

When the digital age came along, I started experimenting with them, but I wasn’t really impressed. Then Nikon introduced their pro level cameras and I saw the end of film on the horizon. I bought a D70 on a trip to Kuala Lumpur and have been hooked on digital ever since. My latest rig is a D700, which I have had since it was released. There are newer and better cameras out there, but I’m happy with my D700.

Yesterday I was on a run and paused to take a shot with my iPhone. Actually, I took several because…well, just because. That’s what you do. You just respond to a scene that calls out to you. It’s part of my running mode these days. Stop and enjoy what you see. Running can take you to places you won’t/can’t see from a car.

Photo May 03, 9 22 13 AM

The reflection of the sky on the water caught my eye and then the edginess of the trees offered an unsettling contrast to the tranquil sky. I was 7 miles into a 10 mile run, so there’s no telling where my mind was.

Then I saw a rock.  One that I have passed a hundred times, but this time it looked different.

A rock

A rock

I don’t like how the top of the rock is washed out. Extreme contrast is a limit on phone cameras. The new growth of spring was a soft contrast to the hard rock surface that reinforced the grey to green.

I thought about that shot as I ran the last couple of miles and had wished I had my old 4×5 view camera to take it in black and white with excessive detail. A view camera is one of those with a bellows and a ground glass plate where the image is focused. You have to drape a cloth over your head and around the back of the camera to see the image. And the image is upside down and reversed left to right. There is no better way to develop compositional skills. It is also a real pain in the ass to carry around, setup, load film into and develop each sheet of film. But the results were astounding.

This morning I followed my black and white muse as the sun rose. Leaves are just beginning to emerge on the trees surrounding our house. The juxtaposition made it feel as if they were on fire. In color it looked interesting, but bland. My vision was in black and white when I took them. I previsualized what I wanted. In both cases I cropped the shot and did a little post production shift of contrast, but not much. It would have been the same work I would have done by altering the developing times and shooting the print on different contrast paper if I was using legacy methods.

BW Leaves on fire

The graphic pallet of this shot is very nice. I see some issues with it, but the image is still strong. Stronger in black and white than in color. I worked it so that there were no absolute whites and some texture in the very dark areas. What appeals to me is the repetition of vertical strokes with some lateral conflict as a backdrop to the shimmering leaves.

Admittedly, I should have taken a bit more time and used a tripod. There was a slight breeze, which would normally have stopped me because of loss of clarity, but not today. I was just playing around and having some fun with my visualization. Just like my running, I don’t take it too seriously these days. I just do it for enjoyment and my own enrichment.

Here’s the other shot from the same timeframe.

BW of backlit leaves

I softened this one a little. Quite frankly, I screwed up the exposure, but the result was to make the shadows very dark. Which worked out OK. You know they are leaves on trees, but if you look at it long enough your eyes follow a pattern and each grouping leads to the next. The bright leaves centered on the abyss keep you coming back to the center.

I had forgotten how nice black and white is and how it makes you think more about what you are shooting. These are not the best shots in the world, but I like them because they reminded me to look deeper at what is around me.

More to come.

Run Free!

The Truth About Me

This has been an interesting year, as far as my reading list goes.  Since last summer I have read many books.  Three of those have changed my perspective on my life and what I am all about.  To read a book like that once every few years is something, but to have three of them hit you in the space of a few months is pretty amazing. It just proves that you are never too old or young to re-assess and make changes.

It started in the summer when I happened on a book entitled Brain Rules by John Medina. 

He is a developmental molecular biologist and has done great research about the brain; how it came to be and why it works the way it does.  He was able to distill this mass of work into twelve rules.  I won’t repeat them all because I think you ought to read the book.  The one that hit me the hardest was Rule #1 – Keep moving.

The rule stems from a simple question.  How did man’s brain get to be the way it is?  If you go back to the days when we ventured out from the trees onto the savannah the answer is pretty simple, although the evolution is not.   If you are walking upright you need to keep your eyes open and in constant motion to avoid being eaten or to find something to eat.  So many of the attributes of our brain tie back to staying in motion, learning to track prey and tell direction.

That links directly to the second life changing book I read, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.

An athletic man, Chris failed at running due to constant injury.  Something many runners suffer these days.  What got him going was the theme from many doctors he visited that man was not made to run and that man’s feet were failures.  For Chris, that didn’t didn’t make sense.  Then he heard about a tribe of Indians who lived in the Copper Canyons of Mexico.  The Tarahumara were phenomenal runners and that started Chris on an investigation that lead him to discover a wealth of research and the revelation that we are runners by nature.

The premise of the book is a corollary to Medina’s Rule #1; man was born not just to move, but to run.  We are the perfect machines to run long distances at varying paces.  From a tendon in our neck that only running creatures have, to the pores of our skin which uniquely cool us as we exert ourselves, to the shape and mechanics of our fantastic feet.  Before we had weapons and tools we hunted by running down animals until they died of heat prostration.   All other running animals exhaust their heat through panting.  Keep them running and they will die.  Of course, it takes twenty-six miles or so to do it.  There are tribes and groups who still hunt that way.

What we messed up in the last few decades is how we run.  Modern running shoes go against almost all that is natural to us.  I’m not saying they are bad, they just aid us in running wrong.  Born To Run motivated me to re-learn running.  I was infused enough by what I read to start an online journal about my transformation (jlgrunr.com).  Running has been part of my life for over 40 years. It is something I enjoy and crave.  My addiction.  My drug of choice.  I have been lucky to avoid any serious injury.  Changing to a natural style of running has changed the sport for me. It’s all good.

Running is my meditation platform.  I am not a sit on the floor, cross your legs and chant meditator.  I need motion (do you get the theme?).   When I run and get into a rhythm my thoughts percolate, the problems find solutions and I create new ideas.  Some people call it a runner’s high.  I just call it running.  That’s why I smile a lot when I run.

That bridges me to the third book; Quiet by Susan Cain.

It is a book about the power of introverts.  Having spent so much time in corporations committed to group processes I was surprised and pleased to discover that most innovation happens when smart people work alone.  A notable example of an introvert who changed our lives is Steve Wozniak who invented the personal computer.  He and his good friend, Steve Jobs, took that creation and started a company called Apple Computers.  The Woz was struck by an idea he heard in an informal gathering of engineers discussing computer technology.  His years of solitary study of computers and computer architecture gelled in that meeting.  He spent the next three months patiently working alone, after hours, to design and build the first computer that had a processor, keyboard and a display screen integrated into one package.  That design became the Apple 1.

Reading the book I recognized so many characteristics of the introvert in my own personality.  It helped me understand why I struggle with speaking in front of large groups and my quiet mode in large meetings, even when I am the lead.  It is funny, though, because I am considered an excellent manager and a very sociable person.  I attribute that to my ability to listen and observe.  I’ve also developed some subtle mechanisms that allow me to put on a more extroverted personality.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love spending time with family and friends.  I just prefer them in small groups.  I am also totally comfortable spending time alone with my own thoughts.

It also explains why I enjoy writing so much.  Whether fiction or non-fiction, I am applying my observational learning to guide the words I use to craft my work.  Writing fiction is about building good characters and then putting them in interesting situations to see how they act.  Making a character three dimensional is all about observing what you have written and comparing it to reality.  Is it believable?  Are they acting like a real person would?  Do they have the same faults and talents that any normal person would?  I think I did a good job of that in SYN:FIN.

The introvert that I am needs alone time and I find that time out on the road while I am in motion under the power of my own two feet.  It makes so much sense now.  The exertion of running, which comes to me so naturally, is a vent for my own need for solitude.  People have asked if I get bored running for hours.  No way.  I breath with a hypnotic rhythm, feeling the motion and muscles.  My senses are at their height when I run and my mind is free to engage as it sees fit.

In my running journal my tag line is: “I run therefore, I am”.  When I wrote it I thought it just sounded cool.  Now I realize that it is the most fundamental truth about me.

Feedback is a Gift – Painful, But a Gift

The first draft of my novel, SYN:FIN, was typed on an Olympia SM9 from the 60’s.  One word after another with no delete key.  That is the great thing about writing on a typewriter.  There is no going back.

My Oly SM9

I keyed that first draft into my computer and did an edit for spelling and grammar and thought I had a killer novel.  Just before I pushed the button to publish, I decided to ask a good friend to read the first three chapters, about 30 pages.

She had great credentials.  Not only was she the CEO of a research consulting firm, she had published a book earlier in her life.  Competent and articulate, on the business side she had always been crisp and insightful in her analysis.  What better person to tell me how great my story was.

You know where this is going.

Here is an excerpt from the first paragraph of her email response.

Re: Syn Fin, here’s my take. You know me well, so I’m going to be blunt. Hope that’s okay.

The good news is that you’ve got an intriguing voice and a character that will become sympathetic once you edit out the noise.

The bad news is that you didn’t hold my attention.

She was calling my baby ugly!  And what the hell did she mean by “noise”? Fortunately, she explained herself.  You see, I had inserted a little twist into my first person writing.  I had given my character a device to record his thoughts, so that the book was his dictation, not his writing.  Every so often he would complain about something with the recorder or some other element and go off plot.  Here’s what she thought of my ingenuity:

The device of using the automatic writing software (and making occasional asides to the reader about not knowing how to write) is distancing and distracting. Lose it.

That was pretty specific.  I was thinking maybe she didn’t get my sense of humor.  But I read on and found out what she really thought.

The first couple of paragraphs manage to quickly build sympathy for your character–the reader identifies with him being hungover, getting dissed by his ex-girlfriend and sidekick, etc.

But it’s not enough for me to care about him for 30 pages. Since I forced myself to plow ahead, I know there’s more to this guy–but you need to pack it into the front end.

In particular, the fact that he’s a software genius is a) relevant and b) buried. You need to haul that puppy right out front, because it’s important.

You have very little time to create an emotional situation that causes me to care enough about the guy to turn the page. (By “very little time”–I mean more like 30 WORDS than 30 pages).

It wasn’t good to hear that she had to force herself to read the full 30 pages.  Even worse was hearing she had not uncovered the plot after she read it all.  My first reaction was that she just didn’t get it.  Then I remembered why I asked her to read it.  She knows her shit when it comes to writing and reading.

It took me a couple of days to be warm up to what she had said.  There was one comment I kept going back to.

Again, the point is that you should know exactly why each sentence is where it is, and what purpose it’s serving. If it’s not either conveying information, defining character, or moving the plot forward–get rid of it. And if it IS doing one of those—can you make it do two? Or, can you pack the same punch in fewer words?

She suggested I take a book I really liked and deconstruct the first few chapters. I did just that.  Damn, the whole setup was there.  Just like she had said.

I felt like a dismal failure.  This was my best effort and it sucked.  So, I took some more of her advise and stepped away from the book for a while.  Separation can be a good thing.

About 3 months later, I picked it up and took a red pen to it.  I learned quickly that there is a difference between writing and editing.  I listened to aggressive music while I trounced on my words and ripped, slashed and crushed everything.  What I discovered was a pretty good story under the coats of verbal varnish.  Each pass with the red pen brought that story into more crisp focus.

The pain of editing!

It took six, count them – six, edits to get it to the final state.  The seventh edit was purely for punctuation and grammar (forty-seven fixes that my six edits had missed).

The end result is that SYN:FIN has received seven 5-star reviews on Amazon. Even better is that my friend is still my friend.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Write that first draft for fun and frolic.  Just get the thoughts out of you and on to paper.  Don’t worry about consistency or grammar.  Capture what is in your mind.
  2. Editing is a totally different mindset than writing.  It is surgical and clinical.  Edit as if you are a reader and you don’t give a flying F@&# about any of the words on the page.  Nothing is sacred.  If it doesn’t lead to the end game, get rid of it.  If you can say it in two words, not three, then cut one.  Don’t repeat what you’ve already told the reader.  They remember.
  3. If you are fortunate enough to know someone who will give you honest feedback, then listen carefully to what they say.  You will only get better as a result.

I am working on the next installment in the Chronicles of Jim Harrison.  It is going well and the plot is much trickier this time.  Exactly how it all works out is still in the air.  Each day at my typewriter is a surprise and I am anxious to see where my fingers will lead me.  I’m having a great time getting there.  More important, I won’t make the mistake of thinking that my first draft is a finished product.

This time I will do a lot more editing before I submit myself to feedback!