So, we moved recently

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So, we moved recently.

It always sucks to move but this was particularly terrible, because it happened during that massive PNW heatwave from four weeks ago. Here’s a short version of the story.

At the beginning of June, we chose Monday, 6/28 as our move date so we could be into our new place (and out of our old) by July 1. Our old landlord was nice enough to hire a moving company to help us out.

The Thursday before, we started hearing about the heatwave that was coming. We were supposed to be getting temps in the upper 90s on Sunday, then hit a high of 108F on Monday. I contacted the landlord to suggest we reschedule to a day where the movers were less likely to fall over dead as they carried our sofa up the back stairs, but he said they still wanted to do it on that day.

Boss wouldn’t give up an earning day, I guess.

By Saturday, I got an email saying the movers would start an hour early and knock off before temperatures got too hot, like noon or one. I don’t remember how things work in other cities, but in Seattle, the hottest times of the day come in late afternoon, around 5ish. That still seemed ridiculous, but whatever.

That weekend was a nightmare of packing up the last of our things in 98F temperatures, guzzling water, sweltering. We’d do one thing, sit down, then get up and do one more thing, then sit down again. Also, the heat was getting on top of me, making me woozy and a little nauseated.

Then moving day came, and mere moments before the movers were supposed to arrive, they cancelled.

I immediately got online to find us an air-conditioned hotel room for the night, but everything was all booked up. We sat in our apartment and sweltered.

One piece of advice they give you during a heatwave is that you’re supposed to leave your windows open all night, letting the cool air in. Once the run rises, you close everything up and pull the blinds to trap the cool air in place and keep the heat out.

Except our Seattle apartment had little cross ventilation. The windows were tiny and the air flow was minimal. What cooling we did get–which was not a lot because night time temps didn’t drop that much, another deadly aspect of dangerous heatwaves–was quickly overwhelmed by body heat and carbon dioxide.

Having prepped a bunch of ice cubes, we put steel bowls full of them in front of our box fan. We sat and we did nothing. We hid in the dark.

I didn’t do that well. I felt sick most of the day. My hands swelled up a bit, and my feet swelled up a lot. Like, a scary amount. I had a hard time keeping awake (not that I really wanted to) and I found myself in a kind of thoughtless daze through much of the day.

The best remedies I had for the temperature was to wear a soaking wet T-shirt (and not in a sexy way) and to put my head under the shower with the water set at its coldest.

The latter was a revelation. It was the best possible kind of pain, making my skin tingle down my back, and I could actually feel the cold water drawing heat from the inside of my skull, along with lethargy, confusion, and exhaustion. It was a really strange sensation.

The movers didn’t finish completely until Saturday. They managed the boxes on Tuesday, but were short-handed and couldn’t bring over the furniture. The landlord, knowing this wasn’t going well, helped us by driving over the mattresses in his jeep (we don’t have a car). At least we had something to sleep on.

That’s the short version. Things sucked for about a week and a half, and over on my 20 Palaces Kickstarter, I had mentioned that I thought our move would interrupt my writing for a few days before and after the move, but that turned out to be a terrible guess. Laughably terrible. The disruption was much longer and more profound. Luckily, I’m back to my old, pre-pandemic pace. More on that in an upcoming post.

As for the new place, it’s newer and brighter than the old, with larger windows that allow for actual air circulation. It’s also slightly smaller than our old apartment, especially the fridge, which drives my wife to distraction.

Also, although we’re farther from the train yard than the old apartment, that place had a smaller front slope with lots of greenery, so we had foliage and buildings across the street to block the noise. The new apartment sits on a bare hill and has a nice terrestrial view, and it’s the loudest place I’ve ever lived.

Anyway, I’m still settling in. My wife is trying to, but she hates to settle for anything. As for my son, well, this is officially the second place he’s ever lived in his life, and he’s about the right age for this move, so he’s doing pretty well. Except for the ants. Did I mention that the new place has ants? Bugs give him the willies, so we’re dousing the outside wall with vinegar and…

Well, this blog post could go on and on, but I’m going to stop typing about it so I can write today’s pages. As I mentioned above, I’ll post about my improved productivity and the pandemic soonish.

Thanks for reading.

Stress, TTRPGs, and Me Getting Evicted

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I’m one of those people who doesn’t recognize his own stress until it erupts at the wrong moment. I feel fine (I’m fine! Really!) for a whole day or week or whatever, no really, I’m okay. Then suddenly a stressful moment hits and I realize I have no reserves left and something inappropriate escapes me.

For example, this past weekend I was playing in my usual every-other-week tabletop role playing game, and one of the other players–who’s been a friend of mine for more than 35 years–made a role-playing choice that was super super annoying.

Normally, we’d handle this in-game, where the characters play out the scene, or I’d meta-game it for a moment first to let the other player know where this was going, to make sure they wanted to play this out. (In fact, if he’d continued to play out the scene that way, it would have meant the end of the party, in a “they go or I do” situation.)

But I didn’t do either of those things. Thoughts swirled around in my head and I had no way to put them into a coherent structure. I looked at my friend’s face in the Zoom window and could not imagine what I should do next. Does it make sense to say I’d gone blank when I had dozens of half-thoughts appearing and vanishing in my head before I could even examine them? I hope so, because that’s what happened.

So, I said I needed to take a break (not in a particularly calm way), hung up my headset and walked away from my computer. It was sort of close to our usual break time anyway, and I refilled my water bottle, had a slice of bread with a fancy Lebanese red pepper spread, and washed my face. And I thought it might be a good idea to step away from the game for a few weeks, when this feeling would (should) have passed.

When I returned to the Zoom meeting, I was embarrassed. I was supposed to be role-playing and I’d fucked up.

The other players understood, because I’d already told them at the start of the session that I was being evicted.

You can tell I never went to Journalism school by the way I bury the lede. Maybe I’ll drop this part in the subject header, so no one misses it.

I moved into my current apartment with my then-girlfriend in Oct 1994. We’ve had our whole relationship here, and in 2019, I bought her a silver necklace to celebrate the 25th anniversary of living together. We raised our son in these rooms, cooked every meal, celebrated every holiday. It’s not, you know, a great apartment by any standard, but it’s where our memories were made.

But I don’t own this space, so when my new (as of the fall of 2019) landlord dropped me a note saying they were going to remodel this whole building–and everyone needed to vacate–it did not come as a shock. It was more of a “Winter is coming” moment. We knew it was possible–maybe even inevitable–and when it finally happened it was like death. I had hoped for more time.

For the record, our landlord has given us a lot of time to find a new place and has offered to pay for a moving company, which is very generous of him.

Me, I’d like a new place in this same neighborhood. I’m about to leave to look at an apartment one block over from my current place, and I’m still put out that the place three doors down from us, which was laid out in the same format as the place we have–our furniture could have gone into the same layout there as here–was snapped up a day before I got that email.

Just got back from the place up the street. This was our third apartment tour, and the first we actually liked. There’s no basement storage, but it’s bright and clean, at least. Also, this was the first landlord/realtor who bothered to wear a face mask. (All we had to hear to cross off one place we looked at was “I think they do more harm that good”.)

To get back to the point: All of my novels have been written, in part, at my local library branch and at the Starbucks down the street from it. I’d hate to spend a whole pandemic year working in an inadequate space at home, checking every other day for news of when the libraries will reopen, only to be forced to work someplace new.

And yeah, it’s stressful. And I’m carrying that stress just under the surface of my day to day, having pleasant conversations with my wife about what we should have for dinner, or what books/clothes we’re going to donate instead of pack, or what we’re going to do with the board games we played when our son was ten but haven’t touched in years.

Until something is suddenly Too Much, and I’m welling up with tears because the Shang-Chi trailer looks so fucking good. Or maybe it’s Harold Finch, injured and stumbling into his library, to ask the machine if it knew his only friend in the world was about to be murdered, but already knowing the answer and also knowing everything is his own fault.

In fact, during the same gaming session, we were chatting about Person of Interest, and I was trying to explain to two of the players why I loved it, and that it started off as a very good show in a specific genre that becomes a great sci fi show as it goes forward, and they kept asking me when it became “good” so they could skip the early stuff. Normally, I would have pushed against that sort of framing, but my thoughts were swirling around and I couldn’t respond. Not the way I wanted to.

Now, a mental state like this might sound like it would mess with my writing and writing progress, but writing is a kind of safe space for me. I’m still making progress. I have less time than I used to, but I’m still hitting my goals.

And this, too, shall pass.

Last thing: When I first received that email, I tweeted about it, then deleted the tweet because I thought people might assume I was asking for financial help. I’m not. This isn’t a financial emergency for us. It’s just going to eat up time that could be better spent and it’s going to add a bunch of bullshit stress. Which is not to say that folks should drop out of my Patreon or whatever. I’m grateful for your support and it definitely helps, but I don’t want folks to think this is a call to action. My family and I are okay for now.

Until someone posts a cute kitten video on Twitter and I just lose it.

Take care of yourselves, get vaccinated when you can, and stay safe.

Less Twitter. Less of the Twitter Effect.

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Rest in peace, Chadwick Boseman.

It took the passing of movie star Chadwick Boseman at the young age of 43 to make me realize that I needed to cut way back on Twitter.

See, I wanted to write something on this blog about Boseman’s passing, about the work he’d done while he was sick, knowing that his life might be cut short. About the impact he’d had and the joy he’d spread. That I admired the legacy he left behind and feel awful that he’s been cheated of the time he could have spent with the people he loved. 

But I can’t seem to focus on the subject. I can’t even sort out my own feelings about the passing of this famous stranger. Everything’s all jumbled up.

And this isn’t true just with this one subject. It’s true about politics, movies, all sorts of things. I’m more distractible. I’m finding it harder to focus.

The more intense the problem becomes, the more I’ve begun to associate it with Twitter.

Obviously, there are other causes, too. Generalized anxiety about the pandemic. Being stuck at home, looking at these same few rooms. But I think the bulk of the problem comes from what I’m calling the Twitter Effect: a continual flood of information in small doses on widely disparate topics. 

As an example, this is what’s popped up in my Twitter timeline as I write this:

  • Sports team urging people to vote
  • A snide remark at a pundit’s old tweet
  • Trump administration
  • Abolishing Daylight Savings Time
  • Trump’s golf shoes
  • Misinformation from QAnon
  • Joke about Plato
  • Snide election comment
  • Halloween book recommendations
  • #WritingLife
  • State-level (but not my state) police reform
  • Retweeted cross-promotion for a TV show
  • Author promo
  • San Francisco rent laws
  • Superhero commentary
  • Trump joke
  • Mask commentary
  • COVID-19 symptoms/treatment
  • Voting
  • Superman joke
  • Trump tax returns
  • Climate change policy
  • Alexa’s “whisper mode”

I stopped scrolling just now when I came to a cartoon with the caption “My desire to be well-informed is at odds with my desire to stay sane.”

It’s not just that social media can feel so combative and alarmist. That, I can manage. It’s that I’ve spent 13 years training my brain to take in random, scattershot input about all sorts of different things. I need fewer soundbites and more long form thinking. More time reading outside Twitter, in other words.

For a long time, I held on to Twitter because 1) it has replaced blogs as a source for interesting/amusing links, 2) I follow some very fun and funny people and it’s become my main source of laughter during the day, 3) book talk, which is mostly pretty dull but this is what I can get, 4) film and tv talk, which tends to be more analytical and therefore more interesting, 5) and finally, the big one, politics.

Twitter was the place where I kept up with political scandals and wonky procedural shit and climate change and so on. Turning my back on that felt like being a bad citizen. 

And few things are as irresistible as an addiction that feels like virtue.

So I’m cutting back on Twitter in a big way. Years ago, I set up my writing laptop to block it during the day so i could get shit done. This past weekend, I set up my desktop to block Twitter (and Steam, because 2580+ hours of Sentinels of the Multiverse is plenty) from midnight to one in the afternoon. 

That still leaves my wife’s iPad, which I can use to access the service if I want, but that belongs to my wife and it’s not convenient. Part of any plan for breaking bad habits is to make them inconvenient. Plus, I’m not trying to drop Twitter completely, as I did with Facebook. I just want to cut back.

So I’ll be on Twitter less because less. I won’t be completely gone, but I hope to put an end to doomscrolling and political hobbyism.

It’s a relief, honestly. Social media feels both necessary and damaging at the same time. I’ve sort of grown to hate it.

It’s Not the Thing You Don’t Know That Get You…

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It’s the things you think you know but are wrong.

For ex:

Everyone was telling me that five cents a word was too low, and I kept responding by saying some variation on, “SFWA set the minimum pro rates (for short fiction) at five cents a word. That’s the number I’m going to use!”

Except I was wrong.

As pointed out to me by another author (and if you have a middle grade fantasy reader in your life, or if you like historical fantasy with lots of Big Romance, you should definitely check out Stephanie’s books) SFWA changed the minimum pro rate months ago. I should have gone with eight cents a word.

Which is hilarious to me. It would have been the work of sixty seconds to check that, but it never even occurred to me that I should.

And of course, nothing has changed about the Kickstarter or the books I’m planning to write, except now I have to explain to my wife that she was totally and absolutely write all along, and with a little more smarts I would have done what she wanted me to do.

Anyway, as you can see by the embed below, one novel is already paid for. You can help make a second happen by pledging $4 or more. (Which gets you two ebooks)

For Every Failure, an Opportunity

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If you’re backing my Patreon, you may have noticed that it has been switched back on. That is, it’s back to a monthly basis, charging credit cards at the start of every month. I’d turned it “off” because I’d started a new job. As of this week I’m no longer working there, so it’s on again.

I’ve never been fired for being bad at a job before, but you know what? It was the right thing for them to do. I absolutely should have been let go. And I’m glad for it.

In previous posts I was a little cagey about where I’d been hired because it was a six-month contract at a game company, and I was sure how it would go. I’ll say now that it was the Valve Corporation over in Bellevue. I’ll also say that they asked me not to talk about the games I worked on/heard about/whatever outside of their offices, even to my own family. I haven’t done that and I won’t start now.

How it happened was this: Gabe, the founder of the company, liked my books and invited me to lunch. This was back in, I think, 2012? 2013? Several months before my Kickstarter for The Great Way, at least. I’d heard of Valve’s games but hadn’t played any, and I honestly thought he was going to ask if I would write a novel for the company. But lunch wasn’t just me and Gabe, we were joined by a bunch of writers already working for the company, and I was all What am I doing here? Nobody needs me to write a novel when they already have Marc Laidlaw sitting right there.

It turned out the offer was to work at the company on the actual games, which I had to decline. I didn’t play many video games because a) they were often asking me to do shit that was illegal and immoral, which I hate and b) too many games were boring, making me quit early, and most of all c) if I did like them, I could be obsessive about it. I mean, Freedom Force and its sequel were scads of fun, but playing them, I spent hours with my back to the living room, and every other aspect of my life suffered. I’m not exactly Mr. Moderation. My wife was especially unhappy to be ignored evening after evening while I shot pretend ray guns at cartoon people.

After that lunch meeting, I started playing (and enjoying) games a lot more, and Valve was a big reason for that. I love the Portal and Half-Life games–like, genuinely loved playing them–because they didn’t ask me to run errands, murder innocent people or navigate lots of high places without railings (seriously the worst). As my son got older, he started recommending games that suited me better, and so I felt I understood them a little better. I never became good, but they made sense in a conceptual way

Then we came to the end of 2018. I’d taken a big gamble after The Great Way and Key/Egg came out. I put two years into a fat fantasy with a cool setting, a plot that was a little out of the ordinary, and badass characters. The plan was simple. Write a book that stands out, place it with NY publishers, and let the backlist bump spill some extra coins into our savings accounts.

Except it didn’t work. Publishers passed. The book was too different, or too something, and there was no new contract and therefore no bump.

At that point, we’d been living off the money from The Great Way for too long and our savings was getting low (not to mention rent increases and a possible eviction in the coming months), so my wife asked me to find a day job, and I thought about Valve, and I reached out. Did, maybe, I have something to contribute there?

Nope! But I didn’t know that at the time.

Gabe and his people were nice enough to give me a chance though, working on a multiplayer team-fighting game that was in the very early stages. I was to do worldbuilding for them.

Which meant: Where and Why.

Where are they fighting?

Why are they fighting?

Those were the two questions I was supposed to answer, and over the course of two months, I couldn’t make a suggestion that both matched the criteria they’d given me and also made the rest of the team excited. Two full months! Of course they let me go.

As a writer, I’ve had my share of one-star reviews. And you don’t grow up in a family like mine and get all tender-hearted about what people think of you. But when you’re sitting in a meeting, and everyone looks miserable because of you–because of the mouth-sounds you’re making–well, that suuuuucks.

You guys should have seen some of the body language in the room for that last meeting. Picture, if you will, a person sitting on a bench at a bus stop at night. They’ve forgotten their jacket, and it’s sleeting. That’s exactly some of those guys were sitting: hunched over, head down, waiting for all this to just be over.

And that was my fault.

See, it doesn’t matter if it’s a great company, or that the money was good, or that there was a free salad bar at lunch every day with chick peas you could scoop right into the bowl (seriously, so fucking delicious). None of that shit matters if the work itself is a waste of time to everyone on the team, including the person doing it. That’s demoralizing as hell.

Me, personally, I think the setting I created for that last meeting would be a home run in all sorts of media–books, animation, whatever–but not in computer games and certainly not in the game they’re working so hard to create. It just didn’t fit. And at this point, I don’t care where my proposals came up short or if they went too far or what was actually wrong. All that matters is that it wasn’t successful, and Valve owns it, and I hope they can cherry-pick a few things out of it that they find useful. And if they can’t, sorry, guys.

Where does that leave me? Not unemployed, exactly, since I’m working for myself again.

Those two months helped refill our bank accounts a little, and I have three completed, unreleased novel manuscripts. One is that big gamble. Another is a mystery/thriller with no supernatural elements. Another is the fun fantasy adventure that needs a little bit more tweaking before my agent takes it to NY publishers.

I’m composing this during the time I’m supposed to be writing a novelette for an anthology I’ve been invited to, but I put that off because I feel like I owe you guys an update on where things stand, fiction-wise. I’ve spent the last two months squeezing my own projects into the hour before I went into the office, but now that I’m back on my own time, things will go faster.

My fun fantasy will go out to publishers (“Funpunk”! You heard it here first, folks). My big gamble book and the thriller will be self-published. Kickstarter maybe? We’ll have to see. I also have to write the next Twenty Palaces novella. And at some point soon, we’ll look again at our bank accounts and maybe I’ll grab another day job.

So I wanted you to know that, even though I haven’t published a new novel since 2015(!) I haven’t stopped writing. I haven’t stopped working hard. There’s new stuff on the horizon and, you know, maybe I won’t try those big gambles again.

Thanks for reading.

The Usual Giftmas Pics

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Every year my wife and I go to the gingerbread house exhibit in downtown Seattle and every year I post some of the pics we took. Except this year was sort of disappointing. There were very few displays and they weren’t all that nice. I mean, it’s good that there’s an exhibit devoted to raising money for juvenile diabetes, but the whole thing was sort of ugly.

The theme was The Grinch, and check this out:

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I had a bit of trouble with the new camera, but the whole thing looks cramped and unpleasant, unlike previous years. It’s more of a pile of sweet edibles than a beautiful design. Speaking of designs, this is the scene where the Whos gather around the tree and sing “Yahoo Doray”. In the cartoon, it’s an ordinary Christmas tree, but here:

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Is that Chthulu’s glowing schlong up there? It’s a little blurry because it actually moves. Yeah, it’s designed to thrust up and down and let me tell you, it looks creepy as fuck.

And look at the serpentine tree with the tentacle head in the right of this picture:

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This was less “Joy of Christmas” and more “Lovecraftian Holiday Goosebumps”.

After, we went down to Safeco Field to check out the light maze and ice skating track in the Enchant exhibit, and from the entrance, it looked like this:

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It’s dark and cool with a bunch of beautiful light displays, and you can see part of the track on the lower right. When you enter the maze, you get a little card with all Santa’s reindeer on them, which you scratch off as you find each one. And it’s lovely.

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They also had a bunch of booths with local craftspeople selling their products, and my family sort of rolled their eyes when I said I wanted to check them out, but we came away with a handful of lovely little gifts.

Anyway, I’m off to do some stuff for the day. If you’re in the Seattle area (and can manage the price) Enchant is the first truly delightful Christmas event in years. Check it out.

The State of the Author Address

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Let’s talk briefly about where things stand for me as an author in the fall of 2018. There’s some personal stuff here and an update on new books.

First of all, my wife and I have been living in this apartment for 24 years come Oct 3. And sometime in the upcoming months we’re going to be evicted.

The eviction will come in one of two ways: a massive rent hike, or a straight order to get out so the building can be demolished. Our landlord passed away, and his heirs would rather sell than collect rent, so the building is up for sale. (And no, I can’t afford to make an offer.)

My entire marriage has played out in this apartment. It’s the only home my son has ever known. But we don’t own it, so we don’t control it. That means we’re going to be moving on.

In a way, it’s fine. Moving will suck but at least it’ll force us to deal with our clutter, and the unit was old when we moved in, so it’s in a bit of disrepair. Still, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve lived here and if you stay somewhere long enough, the rent sometimes lags behind the market, so a new place will cost.

And yet, move on we must. That means higher rents and longer commutes, probably from a brand new neighborhood.

To that end, I whipped up a resume and submitted it to a video game company who had expressed interest in hiring me about five years ago. At the time, I thought they wanted to talk to me about writing a book for them, but then I met the novelists they already have working for them and I was all What am I doing here?

But I actually play some video games now (thanks to decent recommendations from my son and the fact that he’s old enough for me to have more free time) whereas I did my best to avoid them when he was small. And while the writing has been going pretty well over the years, this year has been tough. If I have to move, too, it’ll be day job time.

Books what about those books?

Let’s take a look at where things stand:

City of Fallen Gods has made its rounds among the major NY and UK publishers without generating any interest. I need to do another revision and decide whether to send it to small presses or just self-publish it and let it out into the world.

When my agent took this one to the market, I told myself (and a few others) If this book doesn’t sell, I’m not going to write fantasy any more. Well, it didn’t. However, I am already in the middle of…

Untitled WIP, which is over 90k words in a first draft. It’s meant to be a light-hearted adventure, similar in tone (if not in plot) to Key/Egg, but I confess that I’ve been struggling with it. Soon enough, I expect to finish first-pass revisions on it and then I can return to City….

Hard Choices, previously titled Jack of Angels, Tiger Things, The Llewellyn Report, and One Last Favor, is a mystery/crime thriller I wrote last year as a sort of break from magic and monsters. It’s the sort of old-fashioned mystery novel that you can only self-publish now, and I intend to do exactly that as soon as City… is out in the world.

The [Adjective] [Noun] is the next Twenty Palaces novella I’ve been meaning to tackle. Earlier this year, I was saying I expected to get to it before the end of the year, but City… has bounced back at me and the WIP… has been fighting me with every word, so that’s got to be pushed into 2019.

What will probably happen is:
1. Send WIP to my agent
2. rough draft The [Adjective] [Noun]
3. revise City
4. revise Choices
5. revise [Noun]

And somewhere in that timeline is a pause to execute my agent’s notes on the WIP so it can go out to publishers, plus another Bookbub promotion for The Way into Chaos, plus cover designs for Choices and City, plus scheduling copy edits and so on and so forth.

Plus looking for a regular job (hopefully not simply more temp work, although I’m not exactly brimming over with marketable job skills) plus shedding extraneous possessions in anticipation of our move plus packing things for our move plus plus plus.

It’s a busy time, is what I’m saying, but I’m planning to do everything I can to get these books to you guys (especially the 20P novella).

Last note! I have that Patreon going (which you can see in the sidebar of my website) because of recent rent hikes and dips in book sales but, if I land a regular full-time job, I plan to shutter it, for the obvious reasons.

Slapstick and New Fiction: Sharing Some Personal Stuff Here Instead of on Social

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My Saturday was supposed to be fun. I was going to finish up my day’s writing, then pop over to the Summerfest celebration, which is basically the weekend when our local chamber of commerce rounds up food trucks, a beer garden, and some local musicians/cover bands. Not tremendously fun, but it’s outdoors and the beers are excellent. I’d planned to try some overpriced food truck treats, buy a fancy red ale from a nearby microbrew, and read in the shade for a few hours.

Hey, my wife was going to be away until the evening, so I could have all the fun. But did I have fun?

First, before I got within 100 yards of a fancy beer, I fell. I had no excuse; my foot landed half on the edge of the sidewalk and half off, which threw off my balance and, like a lumbering ox, I toppled over onto the sidewalk and scraped the hell out of my leg. (And laughed at my own clumsiness)

Second, once I arrived at Summerfest, one of the hot dogs I’d picked as my food truck dinner (not that fancy, maybe, but lines are also a consideration and they were more like big brats than supermarket dogs from a pack) came apart as I was eating it and smeared mustard down the front of my shirt. I hate being a fat guy with food on my shirt, but by then I was already in the beer garden, beer in front of me, with tickets for two more in my pocket. Sunk costs came be tremendously powerful.

Also, this was the first time I’ve ever had a hot dog “Seattle style,” which apparently means sauerkraut and cream cheese. (Verdict: surprisingly good)

Third, when there was only two fingers of beer left in my cup, a strong breeze ruffled the thin plastic table cloth and toppled the cup into my lap. For the rest of the night, I was sporting a soaked crotch. Worse, some splashed onto the bag holding my library books. (Luckily nothing was damaged.) Still, wet pants in the front. wtf, natural elements?

Later that night, when I had arrived safely at home, I couldn’t figure out why my left leg was aching. Sure, I’d fallen and scraped my calf, but that was just a little thing, right?

Then my wife reminded me that I’m old now, and I don’t just bounce back from a little tumble, even one that had me sitting on my ass laughing at my own stupidity.

That’s what I get for trying to have fun. But I know what you’re thinking: What about new fiction?

Well, the new novel I’m writing has been surprisingly challenging. I make progress every day, but it’s been unusually slow.

A few weeks ago I had revisited the mystery/crime thriller I wrote last year, and I’d thought it was unsalvageable garbage. Earlier this week, I realized how to fix it, just by moving a few lines of dialog around. Hmf. So, look for that before the end of the year, if the WIP doesn’t do me in.

I have another big fat fantasy that’s still making the rounds at publishers, but none have bitten so far. That doesn’t look hopeful at this point, but it only takes one.

Finally, I have a new Twenty Palaces novella to write, once I square away a few other things. The story is coming together in little bits and pieces while I work on other projects, and I’m hopeful that I’ll have a rough draft done before the end of the year. However, with a balky WIP and other projects crowding for my attention, that might be too optimistic.

So there you go: a one-man slapstick routine and a bunch of fiction. That pretty much sums up where things are for me.

Podcast Review of The Way into Chaos, and an interview with the author

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… Who happens to be me.

The podcast is right here. Podbean. iTunes.

I listened to part of it last night. At one point, I brought my son into the room, played about fifteen seconds’ worth, and said: “Is this how I sound in real life?”

Him: “Yeah, Dad. That’s you.”

Me: “It’s a miracle your mother ever gave me the time of day.”

Him: “Yeah, Dad.”

So, check it out. I talk about the successes and failures of Twenty Palaces, the various seeds that became The Great Way, and a number of other things.

Apparently, I talk earnestly about my work, and am honest and open. Which is how people should be, I think, if they’re going to put a microphone in front of their faces and recording the things they say. Otherwise, what’s the point of making speech noises?

Seeing the Forest for the Algorithm: a Review of Past Edit Notes and a Hard Truth

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In which the author makes an embarrassing confession

One of my little secrets is that, in between projects, I’ll sometimes read a book about writing. It’s always useful to reinforce the basics, and seeing how other writers approach the blank page gives me insights into my own work.

Sometimes I get the impression that I’m supposed to be past all that, but I’m not. I’ve never really felt that I’ve mastered this craft. Some aspects of it, maybe, but I still struggle.

And since I’m brainstorming something new, I took another writer’s casual mention of his favorite book about writing, Stephen King’s On Writing, and borrowed it from the library. I had barely started when I heard a discussion of a different book over the radio. You can listen to that here, if you really feel you have to. It’s not an interview with either of the authors, and the interviewee’s Wired article is more interesting and informative with fewer dopey questions.

The book is The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers. Maybe you remember when it came out last year, or maybe the title is enough to guess what the book’s about. The authors created an algorithm to analyze a variety of modern novels, then ran all sorts of books through them: bestsellers, non-bestseller, midlist books, self-published, the whole deal. The algorithm noted the differences, then sorted out the ones that were strongly predictive of bestsellers. According to the authors, their “bestseller-ometer” was capable of predicting whether a book would be a bestseller with 80% accuracy.

It’s correlation, sure, but the authors found nearly 2800 factors that were present in books that made the NY Times list but not present in the ones that didn’t. Yes, the NYT has issues with the ways it manages it’s list and it’s not a true sales meritocracy, but it is a powerful cultural signifier, and Archer, a former Penguin UK editor, wanted to better understand the differences.

The Bestseller Code is an exercise in finding meaning in those differences.

I don’t know if you remember when the book came out last year, but I do. I scoffed at it. Computer analysis? Of a creative endeavor? Please.

But that interview, flawed as it was, piqued my interest, so I borrowed a copy from the library.
It turned out to be interesting stuff.

What we talk about when we talk about luck

First, I want to say that the technology Archer and Jockers deployed—sentiment analysis, topic modeling, and more—was pretty impressive. The field is more advanced than I would have guessed.

Second, it turned out that the way they applied those tools, and the conclusions they drew from them, were entirely unremarkable. (Bolded because I want folks to take note.)

It’s common for folks to talk about success in the arts as part skill, part talent and part luck. I’ve talked at length on this blog about my opinion of “talent”, and at a little less length about “luck.” The effects of luck have been proven experimentally.

My question is always: what are they calling “luck”? What confluence of choices and incidents brought about this fortunate outcome? Because, to me, “luck” is what you call a series of events you don’t understand well enough to predict or control.

But what if we had the tools to look at things more closely? What if we had a better understanding of the differences between what people want to read and what we’re offering? What if we could narrow that gap?

Data doesn’t frighten me. Nihil veritas erubescit.

Besides, I’m a published writer with starred reviews and even, if you can believe it, fans. I already have the skills I need to break through to a larger readership, don’t I?

This is where my agent comes in

As I was reading The Bestseller Code, I kept thinking My agent could have written this.
Let me take an example. Using topic modeling, the algorithm breaks down what each book is “about.” Maybe a certain percentage might be concerned with crime and police work, and a smaller percentage for domestic matters. The next smallest percentage would concern, say, hospitals and medical concerns.

It seemed weird to me that algorithms are sophisticated enough to manage this task until I remembered Pat Rothfuss talking about programs that could handle the task five years ago.

Anyway, the books that sold well had fewer topics (around four), and those topics offered opportunities for dramatic contrast. Books that didn’t sell as well had more topics (around six, if I remember correctly). The subjects were more wide-ranging, less unified.

What’s more, one of the most important predictors of success was that a book devoted a certain amount of time to human interaction and connectedness. If one of the four topics was characters being with the people they cared about, living their lives and dealing with each other, that was a strong indicator of good sales.

Guys, my agent has been trying to teach me these lessons for years. For my whole career, I’ve been trying to establish relationships between characters the way a movie would: with a single, significant gesture or remark. She has been telling me, book after book, to give them more time on the page. To let them relate to each other. To let them bond. It turns out that human interaction in fiction is incredibly powerful, and I’ve been giving it short shrift.

She has also told me—many times—that I need to simplify. Often times I have too many storylines, plot turns, or characters. Especially characters. Too many “topics.” Maybe my work would reach a larger audience if it was more unified.

Another thing the algorithm does is generate plot curves through sentiment analysis. When the language of the book is full of upbeat words, like succeed, kindness, rest, and peace, the plot trends upwards. When it’s full of words like loss, failed, grief, and pain, it trends downward.

What surprised me is that, when the algorithm studied bestsellers, it produced plot curves very similar to the ones writers see all the time. One is quite similar to Freytag’s Pyramid; others matched different but fairly common models.

I’ll admit that I was startled to see a computer pull the old tried-and-true plot diagrams out of bestselling books, and how non-bestsellers seemed so flat. It made me question how well I manage the rise and fall of a plot curve and whether the language I use is appropriate for it.

There were other findings beyond those, obviously. The data was all descriptive, and it covered books that were popular but critically derided as well as popular but prize-winning. Except for a few surprises, like the need for scenes of human connection and a general distaste for sex (::shakes fist at America::) it’s standard stuff. Create a character who really wants something. Have them go after it. Make the plot turns powerful. Keep things focused. Write in a naturalistic style. Hook them in the first few pages.

Honestly, my agent could have written this advice, and as I was coming to the end of the book, it occurred to me that she sort of already had.

In which I step back from my edit notes to examine my edit notes

Just last week, my agent got back to me about a book I’d sent her. The news was bad, I don’t mind admitting, and of course she had some notes to give me.

As I was thinking about how closely the advice in Archer’s and Jocker’s book matched what my agent told me, I got the idea to go back through all her editorial notes for all of my books and look for patterns.

I’ve been happy to take her input—I signed with her, in part, because I knew she’d help make my work better—but I’ve been looking at them case by case. Book by book. It never occurred to me to look for trends.

To be fair, there was usually a year in between each new book, and sometimes more, and I’m a forgetful, disorganized person. It’s easy for me to carefully study a bunch of trees without once considering the forest.

So I opened all my old emails from my agent to review the notes she’d given me. My first thought was that past-me really needed to be more practical with his subject lines. My second thought was that I’d always thought of myself as a slam-bang thriller writer, a guy who could spin out an exciting story. It occurred to me that I wasn’t being exciting enough, because that self-conception wasn’t matched by outside reality. The work I was doing was earning fans and selling books (by my estimation, The Way into Chaos, which was self-published, has sold a little over 13k copies, which would be a fine, fine number for most NY genre publishers) but I wasn’t breaking through to the larger world.

What if I had placed myself in the “Good But Not Good Enough” category, and was missing out because I wasn’t really addressing persistent flaws in my creative choices?

So what were those persistent flaws? Obviously, each book had its unique problems, but there were several that popped up over and over.

Here they are:

  • Book started too slowly
  • Too many characters/plot complications/names
  • Characters not sympathetic enough/don’t have time for personal bonding

The hook must come sooner. More unity. More time for the characters’ relationships.

Honestly, I thought I’d already learned all the skills The Bestseller Code suggested I would need. I thought I was already working at that level. It’s pretty clear that I’m not.

The nice thing is that I’ll have a chance to be mindful of these persistent issues as I start a new book. Will it help? Shit, I hope so. I have ambitions, you guys, and I’m not meeting them.

My agent will still have notes for me, but maybe she won’t have to tell me the same old things she’s had to tell me every other time.

There’s more to say on the subject of computer analysis and the services various tech companies offer publishers, but that’ll have to be next time.

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