What Did I Win?

1 Dec

So another November has passed and I cranked out 50k words on #nanowrimo. I feel good that I did it, and have another first draft under my belt, but I’m not sure I “won” anything. Why do I keep coming back to this little contest?

Part of me really like gamification — I had a word goal to reach every day to reach – with the ultimate goal of cranking out a novella, which as mentioned previously, is where my stories live. I like having graphs and technical details and little goals to keep me honest. NaNoWriMo really does a great job at providing all that, and even if there were some things in the website remod that I didn’t like (can’t follow your buddies without some effort), it’s still got the basics.

However, getting a novel done in a month is only the start of the work. As I learned last time, just because you crank out 50k words doesn’t mean you have a working story at the end. I tried doing the Camp NaNoWriMo last July and succeeded… but only realized before I finished that my story really didn’t have a plot! Whoops.

The real advantage is this contest is that it forces you to actually write. So many times, you call yourself a writer, you do a lot of prep work or talking about writing, but you don’t actually put word one on a blank sheet of (virtual) paper. I can be sure every November that I make time to actually get some writing done.

This is the fourth time I’ve managed to win NaNoWriMo out of eight times, which is pretty amazing and curious. Out of the previous three, I’ve published all of them (two of them were Fatebane sequels, which write themselves, and the other was Defending Our Sacred Honor, which although I wrote in 2013, only got published this year). One of the other failures happened because I failed to backup 20k into the project and lost all interest–as a result, I use Google Docs for all drafts now–but the other three were just… not well planned. I didn’t go in with a plan, got bored, or realized I didn’t really have a good idea of where I wanted to go with the story.

“Pantsing” is what I prefer to do, but I always, always, always do better with an outline. If this particular work-in-progress has taught me anything, it’s that. Yes, “Choking on Butterfly Blood” is still a WIP, because although I’m at 64k words, I’m still three scenes from the end. This will end up being a full novel, and I’m really thrilled. However, I’m really looking forward to sharing my ultratech sci-fi mystery novel with the world!

Have you had a good NaNoWriMo experience? Have you had a bad one? Do you do better with an outline or better in scattered brainstorming? Let me know in the comments below!

Distracted Posting

30 Nov

I know I’m a great listener–it’s one of my gifts. This has the downside of getting sucked into conversations that I don’t want to get into. I honestly enjoy talking to people, but sometimes, I can’t get off a subject that my fellow is really passionate about.

While I’m trying to write this post, my wife is trying to tell me about the latest COVID news. I couldn’t care less. However, she doesn’t have anyone else she can tell about this without kicking off an argument online. So I’m in a no-win scenario where I have to listen while I’m trying to accomplish something else.

I’ve been recently reading a non-fiction book about Chabad, which for those not in the know, are missionary Jews… to other Jews. They get trained at an early age how to do outreach, how to talk to strangers and get them in a conversation, and some do it better than others. However, it was a quote to the opposition to Chabad that struck me the most. To paraphrase, “Our mission is to be inclusive. We can’t use the same tricks as them.”

So when I get in a conversation, I don’t like arguments. I don’t find that enjoyable, so when I talk with people, I will often stay silent when they talk about something that I disagree with… until I come up with a polite way to phrase it. Of course, they might have blown past that point and gone onto bloviating past that.

Of course, I’ve run into the problem that I so often mute myself on so many topics to avoid contention, that I honestly stopped caring about most topics… simply because so many people are so passionate about it. However, when I do get into the rare, civilized discussion, I feel I can enjoy discussing these topics that I have opinions on, but I don’t feel I have to rant about.

Am I alone in this? Do you stand mute simply because everyone else is so loud? Or do I just need to suck it up? Let me know in the comments below!

Aren’t We Woke? Buy Our Products!

29 Nov

I ran across the term “conscious capitalism” the other day and it gave me an uncomfortable vibe. Not that I object to corporations doing good, but because I don’t like such an obvious heart tug. It’s good for the Earth, but how does this help a company’s bottom line?

I’ll admit, my first prejudice against this term came because I heard it in a commercial – told by a recent female college graduate. With her “like, you know” cadence, I couldn’t help thinking, “they must be just giving MBA’s away.” But again, I wasn’t the ad’s demographic. They’re trying to convince teens to go to their school. “Get out in four years, get your business degree, change the world for good.”

So I did some surface-level research. “Conscious capitalism” seems to be a new branding on traditional business practices. This reminds me so much of mission statements that go no where. Sure, [your grocery store] gave $X million to charity, but where did that money come from? Maybe from all those screens when you’re checking out to give money to the [whatever] fund? So really, did the grocery store give that money, or did you?

Does it really work? Suburu has rebranded themselves completely as the green-loving, earth-caring, responsible car manufacturer. Were you more likely to buy a Suburu after this? Me, not really, but again, I’m not their demographic. In the conscious capitalism article, they used Whole Foods as an example of how this worked, and just then… everything clicked.

It comes down to the business adage, KYC – Know Your Customer. People who buy Suburus and go to Whole Foods tend to be liberal, younger, and make a higher income. These are people who participate in Climate Marches. To keep their customer base, they can’t come across as those capitalists (even though they are), they have to tell their customers “we’re like you–we believe in the movement.”

Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but even the cynical like me still believe in free trade coffee. (I watched the documentary Black Coffee and it completely changed my mind on this issue–go ahead, it’s streaming free!) When I go to the shelves, I see a brand that says “free trade,” it might even have an accreditation label… but how much research am I going to do to determine how free trade it is? I’ll just pay the extra couple of bucks, get a better cup of joe, and feel righteous.

Is something locally sourced? From where? How would you know? My wife has supported CSA’s (community supported agriculture) before and so you knew exactly where it was grown, but that’s a level of commitment beyond going to the store or even the farmer’s market.

So I’ll admit, I’m biased against “the cause” because I don’t believe that their motives are genuine. But I’ll admit, I may be missing something. If you know what it is, let me know in the comments below!

Writing Better Fight Scenes

28 Nov

Today’s post comes from Editor Ed, a long-time friend of mine who is also a small press publisher, editor, and author in his own right. You can find his books at Pickman’s Press.

As an editor, I read a lot of stories—including a lot of bad ones.  Badly written fight scenes are a personal pet peeve of mine.  As best, I’m simply bored.  At worst, I get confused, can’t clearly visualize what’s happening, and grow frustrated. 

Consequently, I spend a lot of time pondering why one fight scene worked while another, similar fight scene didn’t.  So here are six little writing tweaks you can use to keep your fight scene action quick, clean, exciting, and most importantly, readable.  These might seem like tiny nit-picky changes, but a few dozen such changes can have a huge cumulative effect.

1.  Be careful with pronouns. 

This is the most common problem I see. Pronouns can confuse readers and make them lose track of who’s doing what, especially in fight between two people of the same gender.  For example, “he punched him” is unclear.  “Bob punched Mike” is much clearer.  After writing your fight scene, check it carefully for any ambiguous pronouns, and replace them with names.

2. Keep cause and effect in the right order. 

This is the second most common problem I see.  Although this may seem obvious, some writers like to reverse the order, describing the effect and then explaining the cause.  For example, “Suddenly Mike screamed and fell to the ground, for he had been stabbed in the back”.  This is awkward for the audience, who has to reverse the cause and effect in their mind before they can properly visualize it, causing a brief snag in the flow of action.  Also, sometimes the effect makes no sense without knowing the cause, and the audience has a brief moment of utter confusion, wondering why in the world Mike is screaming.  Writing “suddenly Mike was stabbed in the back, screamed, and fell to the ground” is much easier to understand.

3.  Use short, simple, common language whenever possible. 

A fight scene is NOT the time or show off your big vocabulary of long, complex, or obscure words.  When you use words the average reader doesn’t know, you’re creating a brief instant of confusion and incomprehension for the audience, a “speed bump” that slows down the action flow while they re-read the word, trying to figure out the meaning from context.  Using long, multi-syllabic words can also slow down the action, as it takes longer to convey the same amount of information. As a general rule, try to avoid any word with more than three syllables, and if you can replace a three-syllable word with a one-syllable word without altering the meaning of the sentence, do it. 

4.  Use short, simple sentences

This keeps the action flowing quickly and adds a sense of urgency.  Avoid joining any more than two sentences with a comma, as this forces the reader to keep more information in their head (and mind’s eye) simultaneously, slowing down their visualization.  If you can separate compound sentences without adding extra words, do so.  Look for excessively wordy sentences and simplify them.  Finally, look for awkwardly phrased sentences and reword them to read more smoothly.

5.  Use the strongest verbs possible. 

This is a cheap trick, but it works.  Find any weak verbs and replace them with stronger, more dramatic ones.  For example, use “slash” instead of “cut”, “scream” instead of “yell”, or “dash” instead of “run”.

6.  Whenever possible, use present tense or tense-neutral verbs instead of past tense. 

For example, “Bob was screaming, punching Mike again and again” works better than “Bob screamed and punched Mike again and again”.  This gives the action more immediacy—it reads like it is happening now, like the reader is in the middle of the action and watching it happen in real time.  Overuse of the past tense can make the reader feel one step removed from the action, like they’re sitting around a campfire listening to grandpa tell the story of an old battle.

What do you think? Do you find yourself falling into these mistakes? Is there a trick that we didn’t mention? Tell us in the comments below!

Let Gratitude Be Your Attitude

27 Nov

Sure, we focus on 2020 and how awful it has been, but yesterday, I was able to have a moment to remember what I’m grateful for. So let gratitude be your attitude and let’s name them.

I still have my job.

To be fair, I wasn’t terribly worried, since my job tends to be recession-resistant, but budgets can shift overnight and projects that you’re working on are no longer funded. So I’m grateful that I still have a job and we’re still putting food on the table.

We still have our health.

Apart from one nasty head cold, my family has avoided the doctor pretty well this year. My wife has tested negative for the swine ebola monkey pox flying death.

I still have most of my relatives.

Sure, I lost my grandmother, but she was 91, and I had my chance to say goodbye and return to my hometown again. Otherwise, my brother-in-law’s father passed away, which caused a family hubbub over that meant I couldn’t go to their house for Thanksgiving, but I got to see my other brother-in-law (Editor Ed), and for that, I’m far more grateful.

My bar is still open.

Now this may seem fickle to you, but this is not a certainty these days. Having shutdowns crippled many restaurants, and especially bars, and bars often didn’t have the “carryout” option that restaurants did. So many of them closed for good. Bar Lives Matter–because we are running out of spaces for casual interaction with people. If you don’t go to church, and you don’t belong to an organization that actually meets, you’re limited to social media… and boy, what a fun-house mirror that is.

Simply talking to people who do not believe the same as you, were not raised the same way, and do not have the same life experiences makes your world a lot richer. Plus with a couple drinks in you, you’re able to be honest with each other, and realize what separates us is not that important.

My son’s finally doing better in school.

This whole online school thing is terrible–my son went from being an honor roll student to flunking half his classes. It took a lot of work, but we finally got him back up to acceptable. Now I could give some choice words about his principal and what I think she should do with her bad self, but in the end, we didn’t leave and go to a school that was meeting in person because this is the school my son feels at home with. (But Lord, we came close.)

His school lets him go to campus twice a week–classes are still online, but at least, he’s going somewhere different and connecting with his friends. This has hit him the worst out of all of us. My daughter only had a month break from her school and they were back in person, but my son hasn’t been in a regular classroom since March. Plays–what he lives for–aren’t happening. D&D games are over and he hates doing MORE stuff online. And half his friends are still deathly afraid of human interaction. So the fact that he’s passing all his classes now is a God-send.

What are you grateful for? Don’t focus on the negative for one day a year and feel free to comment what is best in your life. I’ll see you tomorrow.

Thank Heaven for Large Mercies

26 Nov

One day a year, we’re reminded to give thanks for all the wonderful things that have happened in our life. Although we’re tempted to remember how bad 2020 has been for us, if the Pilgrims could get over their bad times in 1621, so can we.

Imagine you’re living in a comfortable urban life in the Netherlands, you’re free to worship, maintain your own community, but you belong to what we would call today “fundamentalists.” You see your children becoming worldly, (relatively) tolerant Dutchmen, and you know that if you stay, your community will disappear in two generations. You can’t go back home to England, so someone comes up with a solution, and you jump at it.

So you get to an alien shore, and by remarkable providence (in this case, previous plague), the land is open and no one is trying to kill you for it. Here is where you realize, you don’t know how to farm. Or you do know how to farm, but Massachusetts is a completely different horticultural zone, so what you remember from temperate England doesn’t work in snowy, rocky New England. Your crops fail, you don’t know the local plants to scavenge well, but you can fish. No one knows or cares that you there. No one’s coming to rescue you. Odds are, your settlement is going to die off in the next winter.

Then comes Squanto (at least, that’s what you think his name is) to show you how you’re doing it wrong, to show you wild game in the area, and what plants are good to eat. Here is the last survivor of the tribe who’s land you’ve moved into and he does more than what is decent–he helps you survive. Not only that, he convinces the tribe next door to help you out.

So you have a big feast with things that look familiar, but are alien. Maize–it looks like corn, so let’s call it that. Pumpkins. They’re close enough to a gourd that we get the idea. And then this pheasant-like thing we’re calling a turkey. Sitting around the table with these savage-looking people who you can barely understand, but have ensured that you have enough food that you will last until the end of the next growing season. You will live… and that is the greatest thing to give thanks for.

Now, I should mention that “no good deed goes unpunished,” but to be fair, it wasn’t the people at the feast who caused the Pequot War… it was the cousins of those Pilgrims who came in the second wave a year later that decided that the Indians had to go. But instead of going down that rabbit hole, just understand that simple act of thankfulness. Having a feast when you were about to starve to death. Not being able to go to the local bar for a month pales in comparison.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Maybe tomorrow, I should write out what I’m thankful for, but for now, feel free to comment what you like.

IKEA Hell

25 Nov

I hate going to IKEA. Love their products, but the way they design their stores as #(@&*$ time sucks really chafes me. I intended to be there for two hours on Sunday–it ended up being FOUR! What the (@#$ are these Swedish fish thinking?!

Okay, so to tell the whole story, we’re renovating the house, which of course, means getting new sofas. Plural. And I get dragged along because what we agreed to on the website is never what we leave with; usually because you can’t put my fat ass in these couches until I get there. My body can tell the difference between comfy and not comfy.

So I accept my lot in life and drag the family to IKEA. We leave at 10 am, figuring that we can beat the crowds, get our couches, and get out of there before everyone else wakes up. I plan two hours because in any other #*#&@($ store in America it would take one–I’m more realistic after my umpteenth trip to this store. Plus, as my daughter pointed out, I hate going shopping for anything that’s not for me (directly) or food (and only because I’m being nice).

The inheritors of Clan Johnston coming with reinforcements.

Of course, we choose a different style of couch, but then we have to make sure to get it in the right color. The fact that they don’t have the mattress for the sleeper bed in stock is less of a concern. This takes an hour to determine, because after all, this is my wife who’s trying to create shalom ha’bayit and sofas have to balance with her vision. So we work with the very nice Penny who works there to get this sorted out… and this takes an full *#&@$(% hour.

Now we’re not rookies at this store, so we know how to skip the remaining showrooms, jump downstairs, and take the shortcuts to get to the warehouse part to actually pick up our stuff. Apparently, there’s a tag that says, “Ask a co-worker for help finding this item.” What that means is that “it’s not in the part of the warehouse YOU can get it, we have to get it for you.” So I have to ask for help (which as a male, I find very difficult), get an order slip, and then drive around to the side of the store and have them deliver it. This has never happened before.

So with the stuff we can get, it turns out our little Prius can only hold one of the two pallets of crap we’re carrying. So after hour three, and several rounds of family negotiation, we finally agree to let Mom stay with the other pallet, get Asher in the front seat, and Eliza agreed to wiggle underneath the back seats, under the huge amount of cardboard boxes. She thought it was freaking amazing; I was disturbed, but not worried that she’d get crushed–the seats would hold the load.

I get the kids home, unload the stuff, and then they get to watch TV while I drive back to get Mom, fill up the second pallet, and go get our remaining stuff from the side of the store. Apparently, this happened with a LOT of people, and we end up waiting another HOUR. So after four hours of IKEA Hell, I’m wiped, and the wife just sends me upstairs to play Empire Deluxe for two hours. I make the mistake of coming downstairs and my wife decides we’re all relaxed enough to actually reorganize the living room, which was the whole point of this expedition!

So instead of two hours of shopping and five hours of reorganizing, we get four hours of shopping and three hours of moving. Which means I get to cut into my vacation time to move @($*(@ books. Thanks, IKEA.

Do you hate going to IKEA? Do you have the same loathing experience as I? Or is a party in a store? Let me know in the comments below!

Weekly Cutoff

24 Nov

Once a week, my family cuts off from everything–no TV, no phones, no electronics of any kind–for 25 hours. It’s frustrating and glorious, annoying and refreshing at the same time. It’s not a vacation–it’s a deliberate effort to remember what it is to be human.

The religious observance of Shabbat (Sabbath) is to completely do no work. But how do you define work? Thankfully, the sages came up with 39 types of work, so you can avoid making a spark… so no light switches (lights have to be on or off for all of Saturday. You can’t carry anything outside your house. You can’t play a musical instrument. You can’t dig, or plant, or draw, or do anything creative. You simply have to be there… and there is nothing more terrifying then that in the modern world.

So maybe you don’t go to the same extreme as I do–most Jews don’t. In fact, with this whole COVID #@*$(%, our synagogue still doesn’t meet in person, so we’re forced to turn on our computers for services. So for two hours, we use the “travel to shul” exception that we normally use for driving the car to get to services to see Zoom. I hate it, but it’s what I got. Once services are done, the computer goes away again, and we’re back to doing what we normally do on Shabbat.

Which is… what? Mostly reading. My wife–bereft of her normal reading material–has been forced to read young adult fiction which she does NOT like. By about 2 in the afternoon, she get do another… questionable activity, which is organizing something. She’s not cleaning, just… organizing. And it brings her joy, so that’s good. The kids run out to play with their friends, and when they have to go do something else, they’re forced to play with us. So this week, out came the chess and the Risk board. Me and the kids finally got exhausted playing basketball before the sun finally set.

It’s not a vacation–you’re still you, you’re still in the same ol’ place, but you can’t do the same old, same old. The book I want to read is on the Kindle. My kids really want to watch TV. The movie night after sunset on Saturday is sacrosanct to my son and he spends more than he should thinking about what we’re going to watch as a family… because he’s been deprived so long! 🙂

I both enjoy it and hate it. I don’t look forward to it. To be fair, I don’t look forward to Sunday either, because the wife thinks this is the time to work on the house… but that’s another story. The lesson I take away from Shabbat is that you spend too much time running during the week that you have to remember what it is to be human. That you have a family. That you come together with them and with God. Stop running and be still.

It is both glorious and painful. What traditions do you keep to check out from the modern world? When was the last time you put your phone down? Let me know in the comments below!

Heartbeat Away from Having a Heartbeat

23 Nov

Is there a more useless elected office than Lieutenant Governor? If you live in a federal system country, it’s likely you have one, but I’d bet money you don’t even know their name. Their entire role is to fill in if the big guy goes down. So why bother?

The reason we have a lieutenant governor in the United States is because there’s a vice president. And Article 4, Section 4 of the US Constitution says:

The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.

This has usually been interpreted by Congress as “when you write your state constitution, copy ours.” This is also why we have a Senate and a House of Representatives in (almost) every state in the Union, even though after three Supreme Court cases in the 60’s, both houses are elected by population, not county. (It was part of the civil rights movement–preventing newly enfranchised blacks from gaining power. Rural whites could always dominate local senate elections and keep urban blacks in the minority.)

For example, here in Arizona, we’re one of five states in the Union that doesn’t have a lieutenant governor. If the governor leaves office, it goes to the Secretary of State, who is voted in separately. This can be a problem because the SoS can be from a separate party, and in recent history, in the last four unexpected governor changes, the twice it went to a member of the other party.

So Arizona legislators tried to put a constitution change on the ballot to allow for a lieutenant governor. Twice. And since I voted in the last election, I can tell you, it wasn’t there. Enough people realized how pointless the idea was that it didn’t even make the ballot.

So as a minarchist (least government works best), that makes me very happy to live here. The only state I’m prouder of is Nebraska, which got rid of its two house legislature, went with a unicameral, and divides up their electoral votes based on House districts, which honestly makes it more representative.

However, the lieutenant governor’s role has usually been a) reward a party hack who’s been working to get noticed and b) do whatever scut work the governor doesn’t want. And frankly, we don’t need it.

I could be wrong. Do you like the idea of a lieutenant governor? Do you wish we could get rid of more government positions? Do we need a traffic czar? Let me know in the comments below!

“And you know me, I’ll have another [ad].”

22 Nov

Radio is a very personal medium; it’s just you and the hosts. Your brain makes you believe that you have a personal connection with the speaker, even though you’ve never met. So when a host does a commercial, they’re counting on that connection… and sometimes it falls flat.

I used “Double L” as my perfect example. As previously mentioned, I listen to two or three terrestrial radio shows, only one of which I listen to live. I get that through iHeartRadio, the ClearChannel conglomerate that bought up 18% of US radio stations. However, iHeart is rather clever, and realized that people listening to Sacramento commercials doesn’t do them any good. So a year or two ago, they set up an algorithm that replaced local commercials with commercials in your market area. However, the average listener has tuned out the glossy ads, so hosts are encouraged to do live reads, which can then be recorded for later use.

It’s a brilliant idea and works very well on stations where you’re listening to that host on their show. However, this is where the cleverness fails. iHeart has decided to take those ads and broadcast them to regional listeners. After all, KNIX is the Phoenix country station–you’re in Phoenix! You must listen to KNIX and know these people!

Here’s the problem – there are 23 AM and 39 FM stations in the Phoenix metro area. I don’t speak Spanish, so 10 of them are out, but that still leaves 52 stations I could be listening to. I only listen to Country when I’m in the bar, so sorry, Double L… I don’t know you.

It almost seems like a violation of radio listener social contract. “Check your Corona Beer stash!” Sorry, LL, I don’t drink beer – I’m a liquor drinker. So yep, my stash remains as it always has… ZERO. I’ve also heard Spanish language ads on my podcast because… well, you’re in Phoenix, right? You must speak Spanish!

James T Harris is another example of this. When he says, “You know how much I love grilling…” Jimmy, I hardly know ye! Of course, if I’m hearing his commercials, it tells me that iHeart’s algorithms are getting closer to the mark… at least, you’re in the right genre.

I learned long ago that iHeart charges advertisers different rates. If you want to be heard just on regular radio waves, you get one rate. If you want to be ALSO heard online, they charge you more. Which is why there’s not as many local ads–they have to fill it with “We’ve gone one on one with Bono to ask him [whatever he’s bloviating about now]!” or “Here’s the top Earth, Wind, and Fire songs you’ve thumbed up!” I couldn’t name a single EWF song with a gun to my head. Sure, when they play them, I’d say, “Oh, yeah, I know that one,” but I’m obviously not their demographic for that. iHeart don’t care… they’re just trying to avoid dead air.

Am I the only one who’s bugged by this? Do you recognize the personal nature of radio – or am I fooling myself? Let me know in the comments below!

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