Writing for the space you’re in

One of the perks of being the church secretary’s husband, and one of the sound technician team, is access to the church as the occasional writing getaway. I usually write in the sanctuary, often sitting behind my usual post in the sound booth or at one of the back tables. We’re just one of your local neighborhood churches, so it’s not like I’m writing under stained glass or amongst wood paneling or anything, but it is still a sacred space.

Writing alone in a church has its advantages. I never have to worry about leaving my laptop alone when I have to go to the bathroom (a problem for the writing session of more than a couple of hours). I can play my music as loud as I want, and people won’t be around to mind if I decide to sing a few bars to take advantage of the acoustics (a perk I don’t get even in my own home). Sure it can get a little creepy at night once I turn all the lights out, but that’s been fading as I get a different kind of familiarity with the place as somewhere more than just where I go Sunday mornings.

Ironically I was working on a section of The Sky Below dealing with my pastor character, who is going through his own crisis of faith during a disaster. As a writer generally you are always a bit concerned that a character’s views might come across as your own. After all, you thought of what was in a character’s head, so on some level you must believe what they’re saying. In practice, this is often true, but as you get better as a writer it should become less and less true. Some of the things my reverend in the story thinks match my own experiences of questioning faith at times, and how to manage feelings and God, and others are invented for the character as he is.

You might think a church is an odd place for someone to write about someone questioning their faith. I’d say that puts a little too much specific reverence into the building, when the church is really the people who fill it, and their brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. Also, it’s not like God is the eye of Sauron and he can only see me when I’m holding a glowing orb or when I’m standing in his house. If you have faith, then God knowing what you’re thinking, and writing at all times is kind of part of the deal.

Weirdly, the church is a particularly good place to work, and not just because it’s free of a lot of the distractions that a Starbucks next to Half Price Books has. A good church is a place for introspection and reflection, of prayer and worship and thought. The traits necessary for a good experience of church are the same as those necessary for a good experience of writing (at least in my opinion). You can’t write something thoughtful without reflection, and as someone who believes that using talent can be a form of worship, perfecting your craft can be a way of glorifying God, even if a particular passage isn’t so glorious.

I write pretty much anywhere, usually without much thought to the space I’m in beyond the basic creature comforts. But sometimes it can be restorative to write in a specific place, one conducive to the specific craft of writing.

So what’s the place you write where you fell most in tune with what you’re writing? How about other kinds of art?

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Keeping Books For The Future

One of my recent purchases through the Humble Bundle was the complete Bloom County (which also included the complete Outland and Opus). I first learned about this series from my high-school history teacher Mr. Jordan after I’d expressed an interest in other things like Doonesbury. Over 2-3 years in college I managed to buy all of the original collections, and in later years I even picked up the first hardback of the complete Bloom County (which had some early material I hadn’t read before).

opusNow that I own literally every strip in digital form I’ve been reading from the very beginning. Oddly, 8-10 years after I first read these, I think these strips from the 80’s are surprisingly relevant. Even though I wasn’t born until about halfway through the strip’s run, a child of the 90’s has a lot in common with a child of the 80’s, especially characters like Oliver Wendell Jones and the rise of the hackers. But will my kid find these strips amusing or just boring?

See I’ve been doing the same thing with the complete Peanuts. I have a ton of individual collections I’m saving so I can give them to potential future offspring, while still maintaining my complete hardback collection until they’re old enough to treat them with the proper care. But I’ve also been practising the mantra of getting rid of a lot of things physically that I own digitally (even some things I don’t have digitally like most of my old Doonesbury books).

Should I get rid of my Bloom County books, which let’s face it, will be talking about events and people from 35-40 years in the past by the time these theoretical kids read them? Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes are timeless, no question, and I like the oddness of Bloom County. But I’m weird.

Realistically I applied the rule I do with a lot of uncertain things. If I don’t know I want to get rid of it for sure, I keep it. Selling these collections won’t get me five bucks I’d expect, and even with the digital sometimes it’s still fun to page through the original. And there’s probably a few old forwards that aren’t available elsewhere unless I scan them.

For that matter, will kids even read the funnies in the same way I did? Most of the relevant comics these days are online, things like XKCD, SMBC and Dinosaur Comics (though calling some of these ground-breaking is a bit pushing it). None of them are winning Eisner awards for cartooning. Maybe Sandra and Woo has picked up the torch a little bit, being of the same peculiar breed as Bloom County which has animals talking to humans like nothing strange is happening.

Who knows, in the meantime I’ll be keeping my Bloom County next to Calvin and Hobbes and just below Pogo (“we have seen the enemy and he is us”).

BTW, on a further reading, despite loving some of the innocent naivete Opus brings to the strip, Oliver Wendell Jones is my favourite, particularly the strips where is so overwhelmed by the infinite vastness of the cosmos that he must wallow in the banality of a chocolate chip cookie. Same goes for me and contemplating are eventual technological future.

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Friday Reviews: Review Till You Drop Edition

Okay, I’m sorry I missed Thursday’s post. I was tired and my bed was  inviting, the single most dastardly obstacle to any writer. However, since I am on my own this evening I thought I’d try a little marathon reviewing. I’m going to review as many books and comic books in a single post until my computer loses charge, my fingers fall off, I run out of things I’ve read, or my wife comes home.

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The Mercenary Sea – Volume 1

Writer – Kel Symons, Artist – Mathew Reynolds

DIG027519_2On the eve of war a group of misfits and outcasts sail aboard the stolen German U-boat, the Venture, in search of adventure, treasure and a home. Everyone aboard has a past they are running away from, some with adversaries trying to catch up. The crew is hired to rescue a British intelligence operative from behind enemy lines in order to bring vital intelligence home that could change the course of the looming world war.

This is a good pulp story, particularly after you wade through the lengthy intro. The leader of this band, Captain Jack Harper (isn’t it always Jack?), comes off as a macho stone-faced type a first, but softens with a devilish sense of humor, and a penchant for the fantastical in the form of his search for a legendary lost treasure. There’s a lot of potential for more adventures with this crew if you can get past one glaring detail.

The artwork.

The artwork is flat, colored in matte solid colors with facial expressions that look like they could have been programmed into a computer. Think flash animation. It’s clear from the sketchbook section of this volume that the artist is capable of much more realistic and compelling detail. Whether this was a decision on the part of the colorer to give it a more nostalgic, almost poster-like look, or whether it was the main artist themselves the effect is to make the book look more childish than it is. Sure it’s a pulp action story, but this kind of work should have been reserved for the covers or maybe a couple of stills. Some scenery shots, like the one shown here on the cover, have more depth of field and even some compelling detail, but on the whole this looks unprofessional.

Still, I’d be willing to hire the Venture for another voyage if nothing else for an Indiana Jones like ride under the seas.

(3 Stars | Rounding down from 3.5, the art really is that bad)

Coffee Gives Me Superpowers

Writer – Ryoko Iwata

cover60866-mediumThis book is largely a series of info-graphics about everybody’s favorite beverage, addiction, obsession, coffee. I was surprised to learn that engineers do not drink the most coffee, though a lot of scientific professionals and writers do. I have definitely applied the principles of when to drink beer and when to drink coffee, and I’m pleased to know that the bumble bee enjoys the “buzz” from coffee as much as I do (their pun not mine).

This would make a better coffee table book than an ebook. You could probably devour this in one coffee break, especially if you’re sipping a Venti. Some graphics are just cleverly displayed stats, but I actually appreciated the graphic showing the differences between a cappuccino, a latte, etc. I don’t tend to drink these things (tried a flat white a little while ago and it just struck me as frothy, expensive coffee that tasted more bitter than black. But I might try variants of the red-eye (shot of espresso in your coffee). I wonder if I can coin the term purple eye to mean four shots?

Also McDonald’s coffee is apparently the weakest in terms of caffeine content. And if you ever watched the episode of Futurama where Fry tries to drink 100 cups of coffee, you might want to know he’d probably die of caffeine poisoning about 20 shy of his goal.

(4 stars | Good, maybe a little short)

Henni

Writer and Artist – Miss Lasko-Gross

DIG050249_2Henni is a coming-of-age story about a girl who questions the wisdom of a society that teaches that she should not learn, that her husband should be chosen for her by bribing a priest, and that she would die if she went outside the confines of her village. Her father went missing many years ago and soon Henni discovers that her father made it outside and that the world is far larger and stranger than she might have imagined. But that doesn’t mean it is necessarily better, at least not in all corners.

I liked this, and think it would be a great story for someone to read at about age 8-10. It’s enchantingly illustrated mostly in black and white with blue tones (as you can see from the cover). The dialogue is simple and straightforward but not childish, though it does occasionally descend into childish humor.

I particularly enjoyed the sequence where Henni is being trained in the ways of the new world and how their creation myth stacks up with what she’s been taught. Her own interpretation of the story may be closer to the mark than the people in this new city would want to admit.

The story ends a bit abruptly. Part of me wanted to find some more sign of her father, or to find a place that she could be accepted, but we are led to conclude this is eventually what happened. It may be that I just was hoping we could spend a little more time in this world.

(4 stars | Give this one to a daughter or son you love)

VS Aliens

Writer and Artist  – Yu Suzuki

cover55975-mediumKitaro is confronted by his classmate Aya with a startling claim, their fellow classmate Sana is an alien. To make matters more complicated Sana believes she may be an alien and that someone is out to capture her, or take her back to her home planet. Is Sana really an alien, or is there something more dark and sinister behind all of this?

This is one of the more engaging stories I’ve read from Gen Manga. The first couple of chapters of this story are in the Gen Samplers available on Amazon, but with the Kindle edition selling currently for $2.99 you really can’t go wrong with just buying this one. Most Manga volumes are at least $5.99 which is still cheaper than most American graphic novels.

The one thing I like about teen comedies from Japan, is that they tend to come without a lot of the angst that shows up in American stories. Sure there’s a little bit of hurt feelings or awkwardness in sharing a jacket, but the majority of the story is focused on fun and intrigue. The final reveal is equal parts entertaining as it is implausible. Ah, the lengths we’ll go for true love.

The art style is similar to other titles of this type, like Love Hina (you know I never did actually get to their wedding at the end of that., but I’m not sure I want to start back over from volume 1 just to remember what I read five years ago). In this case this volume is a “one and done”, like most of the Gen Manga volumes I’ve read, so it’s a great way to read a fun story without a whole lot of commitment.

(5 stars | Maybe 4.5, but worth the rounding up. Seriously, give this one a try.)

Yeah, the little red haired girl is home early. I think we can call a double post pretty good!

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Writing Violent Fiction

*Spoiler Alert*

Some post-apocalyptic stories involve people not being very nice to each other.

Working on Chapter 6 of The Sky Below last night I got to thinking about the role of violence in fiction.

I tend to take the Agatha Christie approach to violence typically. She wrote something like 70+ murder mysteries but very rarely was any blood spilled (usually poisonings and the like). Ironically, one of her more violent (and bloody) books was Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.

But different works demand certain circumstances. Much as I’d love to believe that everybody would be decent in the face of the world-wide disaster, there’s too much evidence to the contrary. And truthfully I’m not sure how many of you would want to read a book about everyone being nice to each other all the time. I am not writing the My Little Pony of disaster narratives.

When thinking about how violence is portrayed in the story you have to think about three audiences. The reader, the writer and the character.

Most readers have a threshold for violence they will tolerate. This is on a sliding scale, of course, based in part on exposure, context within the story, and particular hot-buttons. A more whimsical example of this is a guy being hit in the groin. To at least 50% of your readers, that might trigger a visceral reaction (i.e. ‘that’s gotta hurt’). My general rule here is to not dwell, to be economic but clear with words and not to describe things about how the blood is spurting, the bone is breaking through the skin, the colors of bruises, etc.

Which brings me to the writer. Writing violence requires thinking about violence, and to a certain degree, imagining or reenacting violence in some small way. Case in point, I was trying to figure out where would be the best place on the forearm to strike to break someone’s grip, and admittedly I hit my own arm a couple of times just to get a sense of it (no bruises, just checked). Occasionally I act out a maneuver in a fight just to get a sense of whether it is physically possible. Even writing this I worry that some of you might be freaked out by this notion. Let me assure you I’m a very peaceful guy. I don’t particularly like violence, I just feel occasionally it’s narratively necessary.

Writing about violence from the character’s perspective requires a sense of that character’s reaction to violence. Some are appalled, react physically, vomiting, etc. Some react coldly. Some react cruelly, and some just fly off the handle while others are pragmatic. Getting a sense of a character’s capacity to inflict and observe violence helps to make those scenes real and not glorified. A character can, and sometimes should, have a viewpoint that conflicts with the writer’s and good authors let the reader decide who is right.

How do you write about violence or do you avoid it altogether?

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What’s this I hear about IE going away?

You may have heard from some of the more hyperbolic news sources that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is dead.

Would that it were so.

Here’s the truth as I understand it. Microsoft is developing a new browser, code-named “Project Spartan”, designed to work on the modern web and built from the ground up. It’ll be geared to both mobile and computer views, and have options for distraction free viewing (because apparently Microsoft finally heard of Evernote’s Clearly plug-in). Older sites that run only in IE11 should run in the browser and will run on the IE11 rendering engine behind the scenes, with newer sites running on Spartan’s engine.

For enterprise users (i.e. businesses that run software that only works in Internet Explorer) IE will still be available though the exact nature of that is unknown. And since we don’t have a version of Spartan to play with there’s not a whole lot we know about that browser either.

Also, Microsoft is ending support for all IE versions lower than 11 in January of 2016. IE11 runs on Windows 7 and 8 and is probably what you have installed if you’ve been doing regular updates. Given Microsoft’s extended support patterns IE11 may be supported until 2023 (and given how long IE6 was around it could be longer).

So why should you give a hoot? Well, if you don’t use software that only runs in IE and you’ve been using Chrome for a long time, you shouldn’t. I doubt Microsoft, no matter what Spartan ends up being, is going to come up with something so good that it’s worth switching if you have something you like already.

If you’re like me and you have to write software that’s supported in IE as well as other browsers, well, good luck. Cross-browser programming is a pain, and all this really means is that you’ll probably have to accommodate both. Hey, at least you probably finally got to drop support for IE6 recently, right?

I switch browsers every 3-5 years. I used IE at first (maybe actually Netscape), I adopted Firefox in college (2004), Chrome sometime later (2009) and Opera a few years ago (2013). I like early versions of browsers because they don’t tend to be bogged down with all of the features these companies think I need. I like the plug-in and extension model. I add a couple of specific features I actually want and will use, and take the rest out. Even Opera, which I generally like, has been getting a little slower since it started adding synchronization features (which I’m not going to use), and did something to slow-down my speed-dial (which was one of the reasons I switched to them in the first place).

Personally, I’m not sure why Microsoft is wasting its time. I think there’s a case to be made for Microsoft taking all of the engineers working on the browser and instead focusing on improving their other products: Surface, Windows, Visual Studio, App Stores, etc. I know it seems like Microsoft needs to be a player here, but I doubt they’re going to turn the head of anyone who’s happy with Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Opera (and countless other fringe entries). Sure it might mean cutting off a data stream, or an ad-stream. But it’s not like Windows can’t track your every movement and beam it back to the mother-ship if it wanted to.

Take the bold step, Microsoft, and admit you can’t write a good browser. Then get back to being really good at the things you actually know how to do (and yes, these exist).

I probably have to try Spartan. You, on the other hand, stick with Chrome.

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Groggy from vacation

I tend to have two kinds of vacations. The first is more of a retreat where I get away from the distractions of the world and really buckle down. I design a new fractal algorithm, I write several chapters of a novel I’m working on, or I even begin the preliminary designing for a game.

Then there are other vacations where my main accomplishment is playing all of Portal 2 and lots of card games.

This last week  was the latter variant, which is not a bad thing. I spent some time in the cold of the Poconos enjoying the company of my in-laws and wife, playing games of pool in a garish activity center, and getting my butt handed to me in air hockey in the same arena.

Part of my telling you this is to say that the next chapter of The Sky Below will release next week not this week, as I managed to only get about half a draft of the chapter this week. The trouble with not writing most of the week is you feel a bit rusty and it takes a bit to get back up into the same level of production.

So as usual I’m fighting the battle between whether it was good to break from routine and reset my brain, or whether I should have made more of an effort to keep a regular schedule and produce since now I’m having to take time to get back in the swing of things.

Well first off family time is never time wasted, as is quality time with one’s wife, something that is important for the driven writer to remember. We do this because we have stories to tell, but the source of a lot of those stories is our relationships and it’s good to take time to work on them.

Second, even as I sit down here at my laptop in my office I can sense that the routine is coming back to me. I have to go to work in a little while, and I’ll experience some of the same phenomena, wondering how missing only six business days can make me feel so lost for a little while. But it’ll come back to me if I’m not asleep after a couple of hours of morning meetings.

Third, it is never a productive use of time to beat yourself up about time you should have been writing. Better to enjoy the performances of Stephen Merchant and J. K. Simmons in Portal 2 then to feel guilty about playing a game for 10 hours. What you should really feel guilty about was watching those seven Man From U.n.c.l.e.s and your only reading being Bloom County and All Star Superman.

Fourth, as much as writing is a routine, it does have rhythm and an ebb and a flow. While I’m not an advocate for succumbing to that flow on a daily basis, sometimes you might need to on a quarterly, or yearly basis just to hit the reset button. No car keeps running without regular oil changes or filling the gas tank. And writing is work just as much as your real job. Sometimes you need a vacation from both.

But hey, I’m back now and I’ll get to work on Chapter Six tonight. I promise you’ll see it next week and I’ll figure out something you’ll enjoy on Thursday in the meantime.

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Friday Reviews: Shoot First, Ask Questions Later Edition

Every Friday I review two books, usually comic books from NetGalley. This week as I am trying not to be distracted by the various noises made by my dog’s stomach, we’ve got a sheriff moving to a new town trying to escape her past, and an aging hero trying to recapture it.

Copperhead Volume 1: A New Sheriff in Town

Writer – Jay Faerber, Artist – Scott Godlewski

DIG054473_2Clara Bronson is tough to get along with. She has fought hard to become who she is while balancing being a single mother and a sheriff. But her uncompromising attitude has often run her afoul of her superiors, and now she needs to make a fresh start on the backwater planet of Copperhead. There she must deal with a deputy who resents her taking his job, and her race taking their planet. There’s corrupt tycoons, relics and wounds of a not long finished war, and a massacre on her first day.

This is more of a western view of a justice than a police procedural. While there is ostensibly a murder and an investigation, the case is solved not with evidence, but with grilling the right people and holding them in jail till they tell the truth. Bronson has some clear racial biases against the “arties” artificial humans created to fight the war against the indigenous lifeforms of Copperhead. Even when one saves her son, she is suspicious of their motives since they were created only to kill (think Blade Runner).

Her deputy “Boo” has a dry sense of humor, and even though he clearly resents Bronson’s presence is a consummate professional and warms to her pretty quickly. We get a glimpse of his war history during a scene where he is chasing down a subject (though the concluding action of that scene is a bit muddled). Everyone in this story has a past they are trying to run from in one way or another.

Faerber’s characters are interesting, but not particularly likable at first. I personally found the solution to the case a little unsatisfactory but it fit with the western motif of this ostensibly science fiction story. Given more time in this universe I think these could be people you could really care about. I love the design of the races and uniforms (complete with bullet holes from the previous occupant).

This one’s got style, and places to go with its character’s histories. Definitely worth the look.

(4 stars | A good beginning)

EGOs Volume 1: Quintessence

Writer – Stuart Moore, Artist – Gus Storms

DIG027506_1When an old enemy surfaces threatening the existence of inhabited worlds, an aging super-hero must bring together his old comrades and new recruits to stop it. To do so he may need to resort to methods he once fought to stop. Oh and he’s also a womanizing scoundrel with a marriage on the rocks with the daughter of a super-villain he once defeated. Think The Incredibles on a galactic scale with a far less stable marriage at the center.

This volume contains the opening three issue arc of EGO’s and a one-shot featuring some of the new team members, plus a prequel story told entirely in tweets.

Moore has a very imaginative sense with super powers, and is very good at revealing his twists a bit at a time. The big twist (involving the nature of our unreliable narrator) was a bit of a let down, but the revelations about the exact nature of the enemy, and who of the new recruits would actually be effective in combat (and where all these recruits came from in the first place) was really interesting.

Both of these comics are characterized by a rough edges sensibility, but Storms has a really good handle on how to portray the scale of certain conflicts. Moore’s work is a little tongue-in-cheek and a little unpolished, but definitely entertaining.

I also enjoyed the issue 0 story as it provided a decent amount of background to one of the initial characters. I haven’t seen too many examples of people using twitter as a successful story telling medium, but this one worked.

The production schedule for this seems to be slow, but we are finally getting an issue 5 and 6 so hopefully there will be more of this to enjoy in future.

(4 stars | Rough but entertaining)

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PS. I’ll be taking next week off, returning on Monday March 23rd. That week we’ll have more Trube on Tech, thoughts on writing and Chapter Six of The Sky Below. Stay tuned!

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