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.

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.

The Body of Writing

You won’t find blogs from me with the “N things you need to do to be a successful writer.” Frankly, there are a lot of people out there giving advise on how best to succeed as a writer so my voice would just be lost in the din. The best  advise I ever got was from Stephen King in his book “On Writing.” In that tome he dispelled some misbeliefs I had held and which had kept me from writing for decades.

Up until then I thought you had to have a fully formed plot in your head to be able to start a book. As I read other books I’d often wonder how authors thought of all the plot twists before they started to write.  I tried outlining and found that I was not built to construct that way. After each little attempt I would put it aside and let the idea simmer on a back burner.

At one point I decided to try writing the kind of literature people were buying. Romance novels! I had a friend who was an avid romance novel reader and she told me what made a good romance.  I attempted a few starts because at least I had a plot strategy. (Sorry, I can’t remember what it was. That notebook is decomposing in a dump in Arizona.) I did learn that I was not up to writing that style of book. I couldn’t even get out of the starting gate. I hadn’t read any romance novels, so it was not territory I could navigate. Reading is the foundation for writing. I didn’t really understand that, but have always been an avid reader.

Years later, when I read the King semi-biographical tutorial, everything changed. He recommended a very simple mantra. “Just fucking write.” Stephen freed me from the deception I had. He explained that he seldom knew where his books would go, he would just come up with the premise, start the story and let things get mixed together and develop as he went. It was as much a surprise to him as it would be to his readers.

So I decided to make my start and reinforced the effort by buying a fountain pen and a nice notebook. That was just something I wanted to do. Little did I know that creative first draft writing is all about using a pen or typewriter. A manual, tactile connection to each word.

Words on the page

Words on the page

Computers are fantastic. I love my MAC. But my first drafts are almost entirely written in ink or typed on a page.  I learned the difference between a first draft and an edited draft from King, too. That was the second liberating idea. Kind of a corollary to the first.  “Just fucking write and don’t look back.”  Get all the rambling thoughts and ideas out on paper first and don’t stop the stream of thought by trying to fix things that will obviously need to be fixed. There is no delete key on my fountain pen. Yes I do cross things out and make little notes, but I move forward with each touch of the nib to the paper or the key to the ribbon.

My #1 Olympia SM9

My #1 Olympia SM9

It might be that I am just a physical person, but this works for me. My sister, who is an expert typist and has immaculate penmanship, thinks I am funny. She was a professional secretary and she types faster than a manual typewriter can sustain. That little delay in putting the words to the paper makes me have to think of the word I am committing to. It makes me have to phrase the sentence and feel the rhythm of the writing. Good typing is all about keeping a smooth rhythm.

I got rhythm and off I went. At first by hand and later by keystroke, six-hundred pages later I had created my first novel.  It is entitled “A Bend in Space” and is still nicely tucked in my filing space awaiting my deft hand in reforming it into something that people would like to read. I like the concept and the plot but it needs work. I have learned a lot since then and need to go back and apply that learning. The beauty of it is that I have all my original writing to reference. Every moment of brilliance that leaked from my pen and every WTF-did-I-mean sentence that seemed necessary at the time. Nothing deleted.

By the time I started my second book, SYN-FIN, I was no longer afraid to just start attacking with words. In a nice bar in Santa Clara after a Cisco Users Group meeting I had a beer and began writing this image that started to form in my mind. For me writing is about how I describe the movie that is unfolding in my mind. Here’s the image:

Hungover, face down on the crushed granite of the Arizona desert, the early morning sun warmed the skin on the back of my neck.

frontcover

I loved the start. It still makes me smile, and that is all any writer can ask. Write what you like and about what is interesting to you and it will come off in the words you choose and the phrasing you make.

I guess I did come up with a list. You see what happens when you just start and let the words take you along?  This is what happened just now:

  1. Read.  Read a lot. Read often. Read good and bad and every genre you can stand.
  2. Just fucking write. It will get better.
  3. Don’t look back. Save editing and self doubt for the second draft.
  4. Don’t write to an audience. Write what you like. The audience will find you.
  5. Write anywhere and everywhere at any time.

Photo Nov 07, 5 15 18 PM

Sometimes, if I stop for a refreshment while waiting for a train, I’ll start putting words on paper. At home I have a writing area. Here’s my desk. I show it because it means you can pretty much write anywhere. I need to clean it up a bit, but it represents the history of writing because there is pen and paper, a manual typewriter (actually, several) and two laptop computers (MAC and Windows). And coffee. Coffee is important.

Photo Nov 18, 8 59 04 AM (1)

This is where I go word surfing. I like that term. Does that mean I have to wear a bathing suit when I write? Hmmm.

Want to be a writer? It’s all up to you. There really aren’t any rules. Go and discover your own and then publish a blog with a list of what you found. Feel free to use any of mine.

Run Free

It Hurts When I Do That

There’s an old joke, I think told by Henny Youngman, about a man who goes to the doctor and reports, “Doc, it hurts when I do this,” as he raises his arm. “Well, then don’t do that,” the doctor responds.

That is kind of what happened to me. When I went to an osteopath who is a specialist in hip issues for a diagnosis of my hip pain. It was osteoarthritis, which I already had a decent idea it was.

He did some mobility and flexibility tests (he moved my leg in several directions for about 10 seconds while I lay prone) and watched me walk for about 3 steps. His counsel consisted of basically saying that if there was too much pain he could prescribe something or give me a shot (neither of which I wanted). When I asked him about physical activity he said what I already knew. Ease up. I told him I was a runner and he said I should stop running or reduce it significantly. I did get to see the X-ray, and he pointed out where the arthritis is. Like I could really tell. I guess I got my $35 co-pay’s worth. He spent less time with me than I did waiting for him.

hip xray

Not my X-Ray

On a contrary note, my family physician, who did the referral, called me to see how it went (actually left his cell number for me to call back). He knows I am an avid runner and that this was a big issue. He spent a fair amount of time talking to me and doing the preliminary exam.

The difference between the two is their sense of self. My family physician has deep pockets of knowledge, but he never assumes he knows it all. When he did the exam he asked a lot of questions and did more flexibility tests asking how it felt with each one. The specialist seemed to have a conclusion as soon as he saw the X-ray and responded with a set diagnosis. Whether I was a physically active runner or not didn’t alter his approach or comments. I felt like I was almost bothering him to be there.

As a result I am left with finding options on my own. Yes, I am starting to look for a different specialist who is more oriented toward sports, but unless you understand what motivates a runner, you really can’t treat them for something like this.

What am I doing?

Well, I’ve shifted a lot of my workouts to cycling. I am building those muscles back up. I hadn’t realized how much I had lost in the last 2 years when I focused mostly on running. The motion and alternate muscle use feels good.

I’ve been able to run 3-5 miles and feel pretty much the same afterward, but I can’t run every day. I often do 5-10 minutes of treadmill running after I do a bike workout. The warmup seems to help and the dual workouts give me a boost.

What does it all mean?

Well, I doubt I’ll be running any marathons in the future. That’s OK. I can live with that. I do want to get to the point where I can reasonably to 10Ks and hit a half a few times a year.

To get there I am looking for ways to help my body find a new path. I am taking glucosamine daily and some ibuprofin if it gets too much. I make sure to stay in motion as much as I can during the day and I’m finding information about specific stretching and flexibility exercises. I have also gone back to cushioned running shoes since most of my running is on roads, not trails, but I have kept my minimalist form. When I run I feel very little impact. The benefit is that now I can shop for different running shoes! I’m thinking these will be my next purchase.

NB1400

I have noticed that the harder I work out, the better I feel the next day or so. That is a message my body is sending to me, although I am not totally willing to listen right now. I have a lot of faith in the human body. It can’t necessarily fix itself, but it can adapt if you work with it. Yeah, someday I may need a cortisone shot or even surgery. I’d like to see how far I can go without that. There is something inside me that says I can run again, like I used to. Maybe not as fast, but at least at distances that let me find the runner’s pleasure.

After learning to run again in a more minimal style, I am now going to learn to run again, period. Cycling has always been a love of mine, although not as convenient as running. These two movement exercises will help me find my path.

As always, Run Free!

Running Can Be a Pain

Running with pain is a fact of life if you have a chronic inflammation like arthritis.

Two weeks ago I found out arthritis is the cause of pain in the hip (only about 9 inches away from being a pain in the ass). I stopped running after that, doing cycling on my trainer and resting while I re-grouped.  Bike trainers are great torture machines if used correctly. I just put it in a resistance gear and pedaled for a while.

kirby kineteic trainer

Since I was out of town on business this week, I decided to take a few days off. Usually running is my mainstay workout when I travel, but not this time. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I’ll wrap them in a future post.

On Friday I worked at home and decided to take a short three mile run after my calls ended at 2pm. I’ve been running in minimal shoes – sandals and zero lift/low cushion shoes with flexible soles. For this run I reverted to my technical running shoes – a pair of hardly used Nike Vomero’s to get the cushion that they offer. Most of what I read about running with arthritis is that you need more cushion.

I ran the three miles, feeling a tinge of the inflammation with each step of my right leg. I focused on staying as smooth as I could, not overextending my stride and not worrying about speed. It felt good to be out and running again, even with the pain. Here’s my SportsTracker output.

Photo Sep 20, 3 33 34 PM

It’s a mixed box of information for me. I ran the distance and finished feeling no worse than when I started. I also ran one of the slowest average speeds I’ve ever logged. Although speed isn’t why I run, it is the barometer I use to gauge how good my fitness is.

Later that afternoon my inflammation rose to a level that I hadn’t felt for a while. I hydrated and took some ibuprofen and waited for the morning.

The pain was still there, so I iced it with a package of frozen peas. It is a perfect ice pack. I prefer organic frozen peas (just a joke).

fozen peas

The icing helped immensely and saved me from cycling into a “can never run again” depression. This reminded me that maybe there are simple things to do to abate the discomfort and gain some control back. I will ride my bike today and continue to stay mobile because that makes it all feel better. Most of all I am determined to find a path forward that includes running and cycling and keeping in shape.

Fortunately, my mind has no symptoms of arthritis (no more than normal) so my creative writing continues and is getting better. My writing reminds me that from any starting point it takes a discipline and persistent desire to continue to improve. Writing also reminds me that every endeavor is never perfected and always offers improvement and discovery if you keep working at it. I know from creating a novel (several actually) that you don’t control the plot. The characters and context take you where they need to go.

With arthritis I have a new starting point for my athleticism. A wicked twist in the plot of my running life. I need to listen to my body and context and I’ll work it out. And I will learn a lot in the process.

As always, I am interested in what you have to say. Send me an email or post a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Run Free and 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!