Ignoring the Work

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There aren’t many jobs that let you take a vacation as easily as this one. There’s no boss approving days off, and, aside from some questions about when the next book’s coming, nobody really holding you accountable for your time spent wandering off in your own mind. So when events yank you away from the keyboard and fill your days with high stress activities like walking on the beach, going snorkeling, and enjoying all-inclusive amenities, well, it’s easy to keep the hands away from the keyboard.

That’s been life for my November, and at times it’s been a struggle. Just like you might get the urge to check your email when you ought to be with your family, or call into the weekly touchbase from the waterfront, I’ll have that same niggling concern that I’m missing something. That I’m falling behind.

The main problem with this line of thought, of course, is that it takes you away from what you’re supposed to be enjoying. Not going to have much fun swimming in the waves if you’re obsessing over that report. Not going to want a mimosa with breakfast if you’re twitching about a coming deadline (or maybe you would – everyone copes differently).

I don’t have any super solutions to this accept, perhaps, to acknowledge what you’re feeling and why. To go through the reasoning, understand the tasks that are making you anxious, and put a plan in place to deal with them after the vacation is over. Ideally you’ll do this even before your time off starts, so you won’t have anything to freak out about, but if you haven’t, or if something pops to mind that you forgot about, take five minutes (with mimosa in hand) and grab some time on the calendar for after you get back to handle it. In my experience, the process of laying out what I was worried about calmed me down. I saw that I had a plan to keep myself on track, and so I could lay back and treat the trip more like the vacation it was.

It’s not perfect – here and there I’d have a sudden thought about a task I needed to handle – but by giving myself the tools to schedule away the solution, and giving myself the permission to take the couple of minutes to do so, I was able to save a whole bunch of stress and actually enjoy those waves. And that mimosa.


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How many times have you taken a closer look at something you initially thought was simple only to discover a web of complexities so vast that you are left astounded, amazed that, somehow, society left you so bereft of even a hint at the full extent of the topic?

Tequila has blown my mind over the last few months, and not only by drinking it.

I, like most of the people I know up here in the frozen north, find the extent of our tequila knowledge encapsulated in shots, principally of Patron (when we’re feeling fancy) or Jose Cuervo (when we’re reconnecting with our college days). Lime and salt and up and down and move on. Sipping spirits consisted of scotch and bourbon, gin, rum, and vodka were cocktail fodder. Tequila had margaritas, but those were often so sweet or loaded with flavored mix that you could have thrown just about any booze in there and it wouldn’t have mattered.

However, thanks to Nicole’s recent dive into the depths of tequila, and a Mexico honeymoon spent generally avoiding well-known tequila brands, I can say that the agave-based spirit is puts up a good fight against its darker brethren for complexity and style. We’d have blancos, occasionally with a bit of tomato juice on the side, as refreshing cleansers in warm afternoons or on the beach. Anejos and reposados carried more intense flavors, brushing awful close to their Kentucky cousins, and bid a fond Buenos Noches to our days. We have at least five different bottles at home, which we’re sipping through.

If the thought of trying tequila without a filler is daunting, try cutting a bit of lime to suck on after a taste – it’ll help kill the burn, but you’ll still get a general idea of the tequila’s flavor. But don’t shoot the stuff (unless, of course, that’s your goal) – enjoy it, the same as you would wine, or a single malt. Who knows, you might find a new staple in your boozy rotation. We did.

Get Out and See the Stars

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There are plenty of grand things about living in a swarming metropolis (not that Madison is a metropolis, exactly, but we have more than one streetlight), but a washed-out night sky isn’t one of them. Sure, the brightest stars might shine through, giving the impression of a blank and empty universe. Take a trip a few dozen miles outside of town, though, and you’ll find a wondrous canopy where black nothing existed before. As experiences go, seeing a real starry sky isn’t an expensive one, and it’s worth doing every once in a while just to give you a reminder of how small we are in terms of the grand cosmos.

But if you’re looking to get the best of the best, the true cornucopia of night light, then here’s what I’d suggest (based on personal experience):

  1. A ship in the middle of the empty ocean – Going out into the middle of the ocean on a ship is going to get you a majestic viewing of the Milky Way, especially if that pesky Moon isn’t around to ruin things. Of course, you’ll have to make sure the ship is willing to shut off it’s lights for a bit, which can be a toss-up. Get that to happen, though, and you’re going to be in for a show.
  2. The top of Mauna Kea – On the big island of Hawaii, you’re able to get to the top of this volcano and hang out among some truly gigantic telescopes. It gets frigid up there at night, but there’s a reason the instruments are built up there – the clarity, aided by the majesty of being on a mountaintop, elevates you to a celestial experience. Bring a jacket, rent a jeep or join a tour, and head higher up than you thought you’d ever go on an island. Sidenote: Hawaii’s big island uses different lights for their streets designed to create less light pollution, so you’ll have better views of the sky just about anywhere on the island than you would back home.
  3. On a kayak in the middle of a quiet lagoon – The inspiration for this article and a honeymoon activity, we slapped our paddles through some crocodile waters and saw the Milky Way from a calm lagoon in the Yucatan. You’re so far from established civilization that the only sounds you’ll hear are the jungle and your own breathing. And above, all you’ll see are stars. Unlike the first two, this can be a uniquely personal experience – even in a tandem kayak, you have some space from those around you and can have your own reverie right there in the water.
  4. A frozen lake  – Be sure the ice is thick enough, of course, and then take a slow walk out onto it, preferably in the absolute dead of night. You don’t want nearby campfires or lakefront parties spoiling the moment. Beneath your feet, under the ice, you’ll feel and hear the shifting, freezing water. It’s like a thunderstorm, only under you rather than overhead. Above, of course, you have the stars. It’s a combination that brings out a unique side of nature, that reminds you of all the forces going on constantly that you can’t control, which, depending on who you are, can be terrifying or (because you have to let go) a relief. Worth a try, anyway.


Rakers Week 7 – The Seventh Novel

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It’s strange to type this, but Rakers is my seventh novel.

Going back, to college, high school and before, there’s always been (as I feel most people would say about their dreams) this outward belief that I’d write a novel “someday”. That belief would be accompanied by a silent, smaller, infinitely more honest voice expressing doubt. Stating that, let’s be real, it wasn’t going to happen.

That voice hasn’t gone away either. Again, I think many people would say similarly that their doubting selves don’t go away no matter the accomplishment. That’s why we keep chasing after what we want – why we see millionaires go for billions, why we see actors continue to chase Oscars even after they’ve earned one, why marathoners keep on running after their 26 miles. It’s that drive to keep on keepin’ on, no matter what you’ve done before.

Now, speaking of seventh novels: Plenty of people have written more, and plenty have written less but in far more difficult circumstances. I’ve had the benefit of a year off from a full-time job that’s given me the opportunity to pursue writing for hours every day with minimal interruption. I’ve had the benefit of a job prior to this that allowed me the funds to get equipment, books, and time to jump into this with both eyes open.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I’ll make plenty more. I’ve learned a lot, and in the 500,000+ words of fiction I’ve written this year there have been typos, mismatched metaphors, plot holes, and characters that didn’t come off as well as I’d hoped. But I’ve told a lot of stories. I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun.

I’m not quite sure how I’ve got this far, but I’m quite sure the stories are going to keep going. They’re too much fun to tell, and I have too many banging around inside my head, trying to be the next in line.

This is a wonderful job, and I’m so grateful to so many that I get to do this.

And if you’re wondering if this is for you – give it a try. Spin a story. There’s nothing to lose, and an infinity to gain.

Rakers Week 4 – Thrillers Vs. Space Opera

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So I’m labeling Rakers as a “thriller” as opposed to a “space opera”, which is the genre for Wild Nines and its sequels. There are obvious reasons for this, namely that Rakers doesn’t take place in space. But also more subtle ones – namely, Rakers has more suspense. More mysteries. There are points of view on both sides, as in Wild Nines, but the stakes are different, the people involved have different ends, and the question of who is going to live is central to the story. Wild Nines, in contrast, is more about adventure. A crew running amok through a dangerous solar system and taking all comers with weapons drawn.

From a writing standpoint, the most important conscious change I made was in how to present information to the reader. In Rakers, knowledge of the world comes in drip-fed bits and pieces. Need-to-know basis. Motivations are kept on the mum because the characters at play aren’t all that interested in sharing their goals for a variety of reasons. This creates a tense conflict in scenes because people are less trusting of one another. Think about it – if you’re in a crowded room with a bunch of friends, you’re going to be more relaxed. Open. Change most of those friends to strangers and you’ll be more reserved. See someone look at you from across the room and if it’s someone you know, you react one way. A total stranger, you’ll react differently.

In Space Opera and more traditional fantasy, there’s not as much ambiguity. In Star Wars, for instance, Han Solo doesn’t hide the fact that he values cash (at the start) more than helping out wayward heroes. Darth Vader doesn’t hide that he wants the plans, nor does the Empire disguise the ultimate objective of the Death Star. You’ve got evil, and people out to fight that evil. It’s fun because it’s more clear-cut, because it’s a ride from start to finish with characters you love to get to know.

Not everyone in Rakers is good, though they don’t necessarily know that. Part of the fun in writing a story like this is that your characters keep so many secrets; from themselves, from each other, and from the writer. I don’t necessarily know how they plan on accomplishing their goals, or if those goals will change based on things that happen. It’s a fluid environment, and that edge of unpredictability keeps the writing fun and the story fresh.

One last thing – setting is so important no matter what the story, but I’d argue that a “thriller” has one of the widest possible settings you can choose from. Mystery, that threat of violence, and heroes and villains with hidden agendas – all of that can take place just about anywhere. Space opera generally needs, well, space. Epic fantasy needs some sort of fantasy/medival/steampunk-esque setting – otherworldly, I suppose. But a thriller lets you craft the story and fit a setting to it with all the variables at play. It’s a true sandbox.

And, of course, I ran with it.

Rakers Week 2 – Fade Out

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Bond. Bourne. That guy from Kingsman. You know the type – the brutal, no-mercy man. It’s a compelling character type to write because they can convincingly do just about anything. Insane risks don’t take much consideration for these characters because they have so little to lose. If Bourne dies in a fire, who’s going to mourn? My guess is that funeral is pretty lonely.

Bond might have a few more – MI6 friends, perhaps. But family? Nah. That just brings complications.

With Rakers, though, Faden (Fade) Vance is someone different. Someone who can’t leave behind the shadier sides of life no matter how much he might want to because he’s got a daughter to raise. Tuition is expensive. Owning a house costs money. There’s no vast government sponsor with limitless resources fueling his ventures. But Fade isn’t a redux of Liam Neeson’s character in Taken  – this isn’t only about family, but rather how having a family impacts the choices you make every day. Only, rather than deciding what’s for dinner, Fade’s deciding which contract to take. It might be worth his while to take that lucrative deal for a kidnapping, but someone’s still got to pick up dinner for Jaycee. That risky encounter with a group of thugs could pay the mortgage, but can he disappear for another weeknight or take the chance of winding up dead, his daughter getting the worst phone call of her life in the middle of the night?

So Fade’s got problems.

He also has dreams. Ambitions beyond the next assignment. Yes, he wants Jaycee to be able to afford whatever school or career she wants. Yes, he wants to have a house. Yes, he wants to be able to get absurd amounts of gin even when happy hour’s over. But Fade also wants to see those moments. He wants to enjoy the house. He wants to see his daughter walk across that stage. He wants to sip mai tais on an island without worrying about a loaded gun pointed at the back of his head.

In a just world, those dreams would be his by now. Fade’s old enough, definitely. Made his share of sacrifices. He’s been good enough to stay alive this long, good enough to cultivate a list of clients willing to pay large amounts of dough for his services. By rights, Fade should be able to walk off the stage into a happy twilight.

Except the bills keep coming. Just because he’s lived out more than nine lives, doesn’t mean Fade gets a free pass on his tenth. So, in Rakers, Fade is still hustling. Still pulling contracts and taking the cash he can get. Hoping that he’s not going to wind up in over his own head.

Only, if Fade was being honest with himself, he could’ve retired. Could’ve shipped the two of them out to some small town and coasted. But he doesn’t. Hasn’t.

Because, not-so-deep-down, Fade knows he likes it. The thrill, the adventure, knowing that every second matters.

There’s more than one way to die, after all.

Cauliflower Rice and Experimental Cooking

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If you handed me a bowl of cauliflower rice without telling me what it was, I’d probably guess some form of cheese. Goat cheese, or maybe a thick Parmesan. However, it lacks the flavor of those two delectable treats. Like normal rice, it takes on the taste of whatever you pair it with, acting as a base to ground in other foods.

Making cauliflower rice requires taking the cauliflower itself, chopping it up, throwing it in a food processor and whittling away at it till it’s been sliced into bits (though not pureed). There’s some science to this bit, science that I haven’t quite nailed down. I still find chunky parts in the end result, though I accept those as casualties and move on with the recipe because to do otherwise would lead to madness.

Then it’s the skillet and a dousing of oil, maybe some spices, and eventually water to simmer the stuff down. And at the end you’ve got a pile of white, sort of fluffy, stuff.

My wife is a culinary experimenter – one who adventures into new recipes with a sort of fearless abandon, like the Lewis and Clarke expedition, only instead of the Pacific Ocean, we’re venturing into new aisles of the grocery store. Then, if she’s busy, it falls to me to carry her grand plans to a delectable conclusion.

And I’ll say this – there’s all sorts of good things to be gained by venturing out into the culinary wilds. I’ve learned about more types of food, and how to prepare them, in the last few years than I had in the 25 years before. I’m more creative in the kitchen, now, on my own than I had been before her.

This, I think (and hope), has a positive effect on the ol’ writing life. Something about how exploring creativity in one field helps bring it into others.

If nothing else, at least, there’s still the cauliflower rice.

The Delight of a Coffee Shop in a New City

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A couple of weeks ago, as an airport on the way to a Vermont wedding, my wife and I spent a quick night in Boston. In the morning, while she jaunted off to a workout, I did the responsible thing and went hunting for scones and coffee. A bit of writing time wouldn’t hurt either.

In that historic downtown, with the various New England hordes finding their ways to work, I checked the old Maps app on the phone and fished around for somewhere interesting. There’s nothing particularly wrong about a Starbucks or a Panera (or, this being New England, a Dunkin’ Donuts), but I find the quirky and non-branded nature of more local haunts to be conducive to creativity. It’s as though the muse finds a kindred spirit in the handwritten specials and the home-cooked recipes. The bags of coffee coming from a variety of sources and all that.

Anyway, I found what I was looking for in the basement of a building at a “Thinking Cup” location (which is apparently a local brand) and pounded out some words while Nicole pounded out some miles. For a day that was going to be spent driving through the fall colors of Vermont and New Hampshire, it was a solid start.

Last weekend, we stopped overnight in La Crosse, WI, a town nestled into the bluffs of the Mississippi River. There to do some hiking, Nicole and I did our usual dodging of the hotel breakfast and went scouting for a quick but interesting joint to salve our morning stomachs. We found “Cabin Coffee” and its wild berry biscuits, a dessert that would do me in if I had regular access to it. We drank our coffee on saddles, because this place carried a western theme to it.

The point being, it’s fun to hunt for unusual cafes. Most are naturally disposed to sipping the steaming stuff and having discussions about who knows what. Or, you know, falling into universes of your own making and seeing what sort of magic you can make.

Also scones. They’re so good.

I may have a problem.

Divided Time

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I think most authors – most artists – would tell you that, at any given time, they have one core project that they’re working on. As you get further along, however, the designation of a “main project” gets a little blurred. For example, here are the main things that I’m doing right now:

  1. Writing the Next Book – currently, I’m adding words every day to a new book in the Wild Nines universe, mostly because it’s a story idea that came into mind and it’s one I want to tell. However, unlike the previous works I’ve done (and starting with Rakers), I’m not planning on doing the whole series out of the gate. Meaning one after another. Like drinking shots one after another, writing numerous novels in the same universe can get, well, nauseating isn’t the right word but, like the shots, it loses the edge. With both the first Wild Nines and Riven, I found I became so familiar with the universes that they lost some of their potential to surprise. So I’m trying to bounce around a little more. This novel is a chance to experiment – to “go home” to a place I’ve been before and see how it’s changed and what new stories there are to explore.
  2. Formatting and Covers – Rakers is sitting right in this stage. The text is pretty much done. Now it’s the little things – like adding in an author’s note, doing the formatting, deciding on the cover. It’s in the final stages before jumping out into the world, but there are a lot of little things that have to be done before a book can go from that shiny word doc on your computer to something buyable on Amazon. I spend some time working on this every day after getting the writing done on the next novel – I find that tackling more business-centric things is easier in the afternoons and evenings when working up the energy to spit out new chapters can be difficult. This exhaustion, of course, is an individual thing and, in periods of crisis, can be dealt with through suitable application of espresso.
  3. Managing various storefronts, promotions, etc. – And here’s the truly deceptive part about being an author. There are always tasks to be done in this area. Always. Whether it’s updating links on your author website or your online store, entering “about the author” details on various fronts, or making sure you’ve applied for various promotional opportunities… this is the endless timesink. I’ve found some success simply by taking two or three things that should be done in this bucket every day. More if I’m feeling particularly adventurous. With every published title, this becomes a bigger and bigger task (though commensurately more exciting!). It’s sometimes strange to think that by doing work (writing), you create more work for yourself (publishing and promotion) whereas in most normal jobs completing a task doesn’t, nesting doll-style, cause ten more to appear.

I could jot down more things here – like researching and plotting new books, listening to podcasts and reading publishing articles to stay up with what’s going on in the industry, or eating food (a mainstay of every day for me). Point being, it’s a rare and unproductive day if all I do is squeeze out more words. Sometimes, that thought gets a little depressing, because who doesn’t want to live in the romantic ideal of the scribbler by the sea, spending days listening to the waves and surfing their imagination, only to hand off a completed manuscript to an ecstatic publisher?

Then again, we don’t have to write it all by hand. So there’s that.

Editing Someone Else’s Work Will Help Your Own

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Everyone who writes, and I’m talking emails and texts and whatnot here, edits their own work to varying degrees. You might gloss over for typos before you hit send (or have your program do it for you). You might be so careful as to read it aloud or save it as a draft and come back later with fresh eyes (I’d recommend both for anything really important that isn’t needed immediately).

But how many of us actually take the time to edit someone else’s work?

I did this in my prior job on occasion – reviewed emails and documents before they made their way to the clients. And I’d say that it helped somewhat. Trains the eye to look for strange things. Missed phrases or chopped sentences. The odd line break where one doesn’t belong.

Editing someone else’s fiction, though, is an entirely different beast. Here you’re not so concerned with corporate language. Here, you’re looking to see if things like tone, conflict, character motivation and setting are addressed (in addition to all those typos and grammatical checks). You might think that the task would be annoying (and at times, sure), but what I’ve found is that you’ll get plenty of benefit for your own writing as well as helping out a friend (or client).

  1. You’ll get to immerse yourself in a different tone and see how it’s constructed. When you read a novel for pleasure, odds are you’re trying to get swept up into the story. The only time you pay strict attention to sentence construction is when it pulls you out of the narrative (usually for the negative). When you edit the same work, however, you deliberately look for how the author is putting sentences together. Why do they choose these words, that cadence. As the pages roll by, you’ll understand how they go about building the vibe of their writing. If it’s different from your own, then by the end of the book, you just might find you have a new tool to employ. A new style should you choose to use it. Or, if nothing else, an appreciation for another way stories can be told.
  2. You’ll see your own faults in other’s words. Every writer has ticks. The kind of fallback words or strategies they turn to time and again. Readers may recognize them, and some may like them. Editors, as I do when I edit my own work, will come to learn a writer’s quirks awful quick. When you edit someone else’s story, you’ll see their crutches, their turns of phrase or punctuation tricks. You’ll find some that annoy you, some that need excising, and some that make you smile. But you’ll notice, and the next time you go back to your own writing, you’ll find yourself paying closer attention to your habits. Maybe even change a few, for better or for worse.
  3. You’ll learn about a different type of target reader. If you, like me, write science fiction, odds are you have some ideas about who’s reading those books. The sort of things the readers like. Their hobbies and so on. Editing another’s work, especially if it’s in a different genre, can be a mind-bending experience. Editing a romance, for example, can introduce you to a whole new suite of expectations. Of characters and decisions and conflicts that simply wouldn’t enter the discussion for your next galaxy-spanning space romp. You can then take the knowledge that you’ve learned from the editing, the tropes and the twists and the turns and slid some of them into your own work. Add a bit of unexpected spice, and maybe bring in a few curious souls from the other genre.
  4. You’ll remind yourself what it takes to get from here to there. It bears repeating that many of the books we pick up and read are the products of rewrites, of edits and drafts and so on. If you’re a writer, it’s easy to compare yourself to those polished manuscripts, and it’s often disheartening. When you open the door to look at a work in its early stages, it’s often a reminder that no work starts off perfect. The piece you’re editing is just like a work of your own – it needs to grow into the final product that’s going to make it into stores. Seeing another writer go through the same struggles that you deal with is empowering, helps bond you to one another. And maybe you’ll take it a little easier on yourself when the next scene you write doesn’t quite cut it.

Overall, editing someone else’s work can be a wonderful, growing experience for you and the person whose work you’re editing. As with anything, though, you need to decide what type of writing you’re willing to look at, and how much time you’re willing to spend. I was doing this as a favor, and so was doing a more general copy edit and thought I’d jot down what got out of it, which, as it turns out, was quite a bit.

Now, as ever, back to telling more stories.