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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Plodding Along

I haven't posted a blog entry in a while. Mostly, it's because I have a day job... and a family. I've been working hard to compartmentalize the two so that I can continue working on my book. In an ideal world, I'd be spending two to four hours a day pushing out exquisite pages of compelling words. (lookee, I can use big words too!) Lately it has spiraled down to tow to four hours per week. Work, it seems, saps a lot of brain cells.

As a computer programmer, I approach my work from a right-brained perspective. As such, I find my work progresses in varying blocks of hours. Some days I only have six hours of creativity available. Some days it's ten or twelve. I can't predict the flow of the work. All I can predict is that I have a 40 hour limit per week. Usually that means I need to spend a couple of ten hour days pushing out and testing code. If I don't, I often end up writing code on the week ends. I simply can't predict the non-productive days. In all good conscience, I can't charge my employer for unproductive time. My job is to create good code, not bad code. As such, I limit my non-creative days to things that are productive, like the busy work of server management or answering emails. I run out of those items in just a few hours. Couple this with one or two creative moments and I'm topping only five or six hours. Soooo.... I stuff my creative days with code so that my overall week is not weak.

What this leaves me with, unfortunately, are non-creative days with more free time and creative days where my brain is toast at the end of the day. This leaves practically nothing left with which to write a book. So, I typically spend a few hours on the weekend hacking out words instead of code. So blogging was pushed a bit to the bottom of my priority list.

Yesterday, I had a good day writing. I only spent about three hours for a paltry 1,700 words, but they were good. It was a chapter that I was having particular trouble starting. I was proud of those 1,700 words. Very satisfied. Today, I went in to start the next chapter only to discover that all of yesterday's work, aside from a paragraph and a half had vanished into thin air. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

For a bit of background, I'm beta testing Scrivener for Windows as my writing tool of choice. It's an excellent program, originally developed for Mac, a Windows version is about to be released. Unfortunately, I got bit in the butt by the beta. As a programmer, I have no excuse. I know what beta means. It means, "you are really stupid if you are trusting a beta program with something important like your precious book!" Not that I don't believe in the project. It's still a good project. It's just the version 0.2.2 has an awful bug of sometimes not saving your work, even if you do remember to tell it to! As a side note, wait for the production release of 1.0 for Windows (or, at least, beta v. 0.2.3).

So today, I pulled up the pitiful half paragraph that was left of that beautiful whole chapter and cried... well, sort of. I debated whether to try it again or to skip to the next chapter and go back to it later. Instead I decided that today was a good day to blog.

What did I learn today? Life happens. I have determined that I'm going to continue to use scrivener with a twist. I will save to both scrivener and notepad until the bug is fixed... Or until I finally break down and buy that Mac with Scrivener for Mac! I also learned... No, I already knew... that anything worth doing requires diligence and patients. Yeah, I lost a few hours of work. I'll just do it again, but better. I may not finish my book in the couple of months that I had planned. I will, however, finish my book, books, really. It will just take some time.

In the meantime, now that I've finished venting, I'm going to restart that chapter with the couple of hours I have to spare today.

Have fun writing and remember, never give up!


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Writing as a Way of Life

Recently I've been contemplating my hectic life. I try and balance between Programming, Writing, and just being a good husband and father. It's not easy. But, when each day is done, it's all worth it. Writing, is new to me. Well, not really. Fiction writing is new to me. I've been in the high tech field for 26 years now with various roles. Writing has always been a part of that. I even had an article about computer security published in magazine back in 1999. I've just never, until recently, had the good fortune (or good sense) to do what I've always wanted to do, namely write books. Good, old fashioned, fiction!

Today, I did some catchup reading K.M. Weiland's writing blog. If you don't know who she is and you're a writer, you had better catch up. She has one of the clearest voices out there on writing advice. She also has a good choice of guest bloggers, which adds to the spice. One of her most recent articles was a great one for me, "The Good News? Writing Never Gets Any Easier". I recommend you read it. It really is good news. After so many years in technology, I can say that it is the challenge that makes it worthwhile.

As I relax into the rhythm of a writing lifestyle, I am constantly reminded of the joy of the struggle. I've even had arguments with my main characters. Recently, while working on a specific scene in my second book, one of the minor characters actually made me cry. Twice. No, not a little tear. I actually cried. OK, that may sound a little weird if you aren't a writer, but characters really do seem to come to life. There are surprises around every corner. The characters you think you know will spontaneously do something you never would have expected. Several times, I've had to stop writing after some harrowing literary encounter, heroic action, our touching conversation just to figure out what just happened. Writing is as entertaining as watching a good movie or reading someone else's good book.

It's not always a fun experience, though. Sometimes the story just stops and I have to examine why nothing is appearing on the blank computer screen in front of me. Usually, it's that I failed to outline enough. Sometimes it's that I really hate the corner I just painted myself into. That's the struggle. It's not new to me, though. It's a lot like programming computers. You think you know where you are going, but suddenly, you are stuck. On a typical programming stint, I end up throwing away a good 20% of my work. It comes with the territory. Writing, it turns out is no different. This is where my computer background has helped me. I really love the work that I've done. Sometimes, though, It's just a distraction. Sometimes, It will sink your book. If you can't cut out the cruft you will end up going mad, or, at least, writing an unreadable book.

The cruft is not always junk, though. During my first book, which I'm still writing, by the way, I got distracted on a side character. She's a charming twelve year old girl with a lot of spunk and a lot to give. Unfortunately, she just didn't fit into the first book. Sooo.... "Viola Ethel" I have a second book! When I just couldn't throw out the side story, I looked at it from a different perspective.

I asked myself, "Self, does she have enough spunk to carry her own story?"

Self replied, "Sure does, Self."

Then I asked, "Well then, Self, can we put together a convincing hook and climax? Can we make the story arc compelling enough to keep the reader from putting it down?"

"Absolutely," Self replied.

So Jessica's story was born. So a distraction has become a story unto itself.

This sort of thing is why I write. This is why I am excited about the struggle as much as I am about getting a book out there and read. As a way of life, I love writing. The benefits are innumerable. The rewards are both immediate and long term. I wouldn't trade this life for anything.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Hunger Games: A Review

I just recently finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I had to wait a few days before writing a review. It was that moving. The book was incredible and disturbing on so many levels. It is as much a damning statement of humanity's appetites as it is a stirring appeal for mankind to open its eyes to the manipulations of those in power. It is both an incredible work of art and a deep lesson of the inherent dangers of unchecked politics. It has been years since I have read a work that I would consider important. The series impacted me in a way that is hard to summarize, but i will try.

First, I would like to explore The Hunger Games as a work of art. It is written entirely in the first person perspective. As a writer, I can tell you that this is a hard thing to do well. Suzanne has succeeded here were few others have. It would be enough to say that Suzanne has made a truly great first person story. She has also, to my surprise, succeeded in putting the entire story in present tense. For a moment that felt awkward to me. Soon, however, I was drawn in in such a way as to experience the unfolding story as if i was there. A truly remarkable feet.

The story is compelling. Her main character, Katniss Everdeen, comes off as a normal girl trying to just get by in a world too hard to bear. It's not a "teen angst" story, as is so popular right now. It is a refreshingly realistic view of a life being lived where she has no control of the events or expectations forced upon her. The larger statements of conscience and morality are played out in the staccato thoughts of her jaded mind. I can't say that the story didn't end in an unexpected way. I can say, however, that the characters were compelling enough that I didn't care. I found that I wanted to experience Katniss' triumphs and heartaches as the character experienced them.

The tone of the story is very dark. The motives of the main character are only for survival and the protection of her family. There are no higher morals for her. Not at first, anyway. Even up to the end of the series, her main motivations are selfish. A fact that she must come to grips with herself. In the end, it is not her struggle to become a better person that prevails, just that she survives and her survival achieves what she could not by adopting said higher morals. The only sense of prevailing hope in the story is found in the epilogue of the last book in the series, Mockingjay. Again, this is more a result of surviving and coming to terms with the results of the tumultuous events of her life many years later.

Though the main character did not have a higher motive, the story did. It was an eloquent portrayal of the stupidity of the masses and their manipulation by those in power. It reminds us all of how fragile our free society really is. Looking back in history, from ancient Imperial Rome to Nazi Germany to the echoes slavery that still haunts our own South, It is a truly frightening thing to realize how easily we can be manipulated when moved in mass. "Panem et Circenses" (bread and circuses) is the basic theme of the story, as taken from Caesar's "circuses" of ancient Rome. "If we feed and entertain the masses, no matter how vicious the entertainment, we can control them." This worked for many generation in Rome. Without going into current politics, this is happening now.

This work is important if for no other reason than to open our eyes to the fact that we have been, are being, and will be manipulated by our leaders. It is only through vigilance that we will avoid the fate of Rome or the fictitious Panem of Suzanne's story. The artistry of the story argues for long copyright periods, to reward the author for her excellent work, but also argues for short copyright periods, as originally designed in the US, to make sure the masses have easy access to important works.

Though I have a hard time recommending this work for anyone under 16, if only due to the graphic scenes of senseless violence and the harshly depressing conditions encountered throughout the series, I must recommend it as a part of the required reading list, along with George Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. In short, anyone reading this blog should read, enjoy, and then recover from this story. It will change your life.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Writing's in the Family

Last night my daughter and I swapped works in progress. I've been humbled. I love my stories but I think I like hers better. I'm definitely looking forward to reading her book as a finished work. At the rate she's writing she will probably get published before me.

It's fun having other writers in the family. I've got built in editing and story arc advice! My 16 year old son is working on a historical fiction novel with a friend. He's been a history and military buff since... well 5. He's also a prolific writer who started his first novel at age 11. My oldest daughter is working on something but won't let anyone read it. It's a story that apparently has been mulling around in her head for a while.

Now, if I can just find more time to squeeze out the words all would be well. Well, it's time to get back to work now. TTFN... (do people even say that anymore?...)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Using Writing to Get Past Writer's Block

Last week I was having the worst time getting a hard chapter written.  It was slated to be a confrontational meeting that had multiple characters coming together.  Lots of sub-currents and subterfuge.  I just couldn't get started.  In hindsight it is clear that I was intimidated by the complexity.  I just wasn't sure of myself so I froze.  I stared at the blank page and my notes and NOTHING HAPPENED.

I tried a bit of blogging and a bit of twitter, but mostly it was an excuse to not face my fears.  I even used work as an excuse not to write.  Eventually I decided to take some advice from some fellow writers I had met in a local Pikes Peak Writers meeting, "Just write!"  It didn't have to be the part I was stuck on.  It didn't even have to be something that would go into this book.  It just had to be fun and fiction.  So I did.

My mind had already been wandering over the arc of the story, which will, if it gets that far, encompass three series of three books each.  I decided to hit a scene that would be in book three of the current series.  The funny part is that I didn't expect it to turn out the way it had.  It was a new character in an unexpected scenario.  In short, it was a refreshing change.

Once that scene was done my mind was cleared out and I realized that I didn't really have writer's block.  That's when I was able to see clearly enough to realize it was just old fashioned fear.  I've always found that the best way to conquer fear is to spit in its face and push ahead.  Once I identified my enemy he was toast.  So I forged ahead.

Once I started and got into the swing of things I couldn't stop.  It turned out to be one of the most fun chapters I've written yet.  Keep in mind that I haven't read it yet so it might be total rubbish, but I had fun.  I got past the fear and got a whole new boost in my writing.

The moral of this story, kids is this: Don't accept writer's block.  It is usually masking something else.  Use the very thing that you think you can't do (writing) to prove it a lie.  Once you've done that you can identify the real enemy and put it down.

Happy Writing,

W. Randell Felts

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Writing Part Time

So, I've finally started writing my first book.  It's fun.  It's challenging.  It's sometimes hard to focus.  Besides writing a book, I'm also a computer programmer.  It's a strange dichotomy.  I've found that I use totally different areas of my brain for these two tasks.

Typically, coding (programming) is a "left brain" exercise; lots of analytical thinking.  I define a feature that needs creating.  I lay out a few different options for accomplishing the feature.  I decide which would be best.  I lay out a set of tests to stress out my code.  Then I actually program and test the code.  Once it all works as planned I "commit" the code as finished.

Writing is entirely, so far, "right brained".  I stare out the window.  I argue with my characters.  I imaging scenarios or scenes.  I look into the future (really cloudy view from here).  Then I start typing.  Usually, my characters go in a totally different direction than I expected.  I try and re-plan the story line.  I look into the even cloudier future.  I start arguing with my characters in earnest.  I go take a walk to cool off.  Then I get back to work... Programming!

It's not that I don't like writing.  I LOVE writing.  It's just that it's such a different way of thinking.  I often find myself reading Twitter posts from other writers during my alloted writing time instead of actually writing.  Twitter is way too addictive.  Discipline to write is hard to come by.  It's just hard to think of anything creative as being subject to disciplined thinking.  It's got to happen, though.

During the whole month of November I participated in the NaNoWriMo event (National Novel Writing Month).  The goal is to write 50,000 words in one month.  It can be bad writing. It's more about learning to get words out than to do it well, since that's the hardest part of writing,  It takes a lot of discipline.  I failed, not miserably, but by 12,000 words.  I'm proud of what I did accomplish, though.  I worked through a full time job.  I was even still unpacking from a cross country move (Florida to Colorado!)

The journey has been worth it.  My programming has actually improved since I started writing.  I didn't realize it but I was seriously lacking in the area of creative expression.  Writing reactivated that part of my brain and provided a much needed release.

So, what's my goal?  Write books, good books.  Lots of good books.  The series that I have started, yes series, will include at least three novels in this timeline, plus two other timelines with at least three books each. It's just fun science fiction.  After that I have a couple of nonfiction social anthropology topics I want to cover.

I keep coming up with ideas that I would love to write.  I already have enough book ideas to cover over a hundred years of writing.  Now, if I can just finish the first one!

I'm going to use this blog as an opportunity to log my journey.  If I have insights into the struggle of writing, editing, and eventually publishing, I'll share it here with whomever will listen.  I hope that my learning experience will be a help and an encouragement to others.  If not, I will still enjoy logging it down for myself.  Besides, I can also use blogging as another excuse to avoid writing that chapter that's been giving me trouble!

Have fun writing!

W. Randell Felts