WARNING: May contain naughty language.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Essentialism: A New Way of Looking at Everything

I first heard about this book from a co-worker who read it and gained a lot of insight. I thought it sounded intriguing, so I picked up a copy that day.


While it is a fast read (not a lot of pages - falls into the category of LBB (Little Business Book) - it is chockfull of goodness.

The primary point of the book is that all people are stretched too thin - whether at work, at home, at play or all places in-between. It is too easy to go from a challenged and happy "winner" to a disgruntled, disillusioned burn out without proper guidance.

While reading the book, I had several "aha" moments and knew PRECISELY what the author was getting at.

Just to be clear, like most books of this nature, I don't agree with 100% of his statements. But I can appreciate and (even better) adopt 90%+ of his recommendations. I was delighted to find that I was already doing more than a few of his process steps on my own. Reading this book allowed me to further refine, define and adopt better approach to work and life.

I took copious notes (in pencil, in the margins) and suspect I'll be referring to it many times in the future.

"Essentialism" is a quick book, but well worth your time.

I've already started to apply some of the lessons to my writing. For example, under the category of the fallacy of sunk-cost basis. For close to two decades the Concorde flew transatlantic flights between North America and Europe. While it trimmed the time of the crossing to 2.5 hours, it literally lost millions of dollars on every flight! Yet, the owners of the company were CERTAIN that if the just waited it out, things would turn around.

20 years and 20 BILLION dollars later, they stopped operations. Why did they continue? Sunk-cost basis, that's why. The irrational feeling of "well, we've come this far. We can't stop now."

WRONG! You can and should continually inspect your results, make corrections, change strategy and if nothing else works - STOP IMMEDIATELY.

I have a short story I wrote six years ago; one of my first ever. Took it to Viable Paradise where it was promptly shredded by instructors and peers alike.

Ouch. But I continually tinker with it, knowing that there is a great story in it. I just have to chip away all the crap surrounding it. BUT in the time I've spent re-jiggering the work, I could have written at least 3 or 4 new things. Reading this book explained my irrational desire to continue working on a dead horse. I might end up recycling scenes or even the basic premise, but that story is DOA.

"Essentialism" is filled with such wisdom and each day I find a new method to apply to my work and home life.

Give it a read. You won't be sorry.



Monday, August 1, 2016

10 Things I Learned Watching "Sharknado: The 4th Awakens"



For the past several years I've cleared my calendar in late July / early August to await the annual extravaganza which is Syfy's Sharknado. 

Combine the most talented actors of this century with cutting-edge special effects, a top-shelf script, touching dialogue, complex and subtle character interactions and add a swirling vortex of sharks and you may start to appreciate the spectacle which is SHARKNADO.

After watching the premiere last night, I found myself unable to sleep. I was too amped up from the 120 minutes of pure, unrefined awesome I'd just experienced. So I reflected upon the lessons learned from watching the movie.

TOP TEN THINGS I LEARNED FROM SHARKNADO: The 4th AWAKENS (in no particular order)

#1: Sharknadoes DO occur, so best be prepared. Always have an industrial-strength chainsaw fueled and ready for action. A chainsaw is the ONLY thing which can save you in the event of such a disaster. 

#2: If a sharknado passes over a nuclear power plant, it gets upgraded to a NUKENADO and the sharks within will glow with radioactivity. Instead of just devouring you on the fly, they can explode like finned gamma ray bursts! Very dangerous!!!

#3: A sharknado passing over high-tension electrical wires will absorb the energy and transform into a LIGHTNINGNADO! (Google it - there is such a thing) Almost as dangerous as a NUKENADO (see #2 above), the maelstrom of large carnivorous fish will also discharge gigavolts of electrical energy below, electrocuting everything in its path. I know, right?!

#4: Despite being a Chicagoan for the past 16 years and never seeing them before, there are apparently a lot of palm trees along Michigan Avenue and Millennium Park. Not sure how I missed those...

#5: A blue whale will have no problems devouring a giant Great White Shark. The unfathomable strength of a sharknado is more than enough to keep the 120 foot long, 40 ton mammal in the air. In fact, during such an event, it is common for the sharks to eat each other in rapid succession like Russian nesting dolls.

#6: Cutting edge scientists of tomorrow will all wear Google Smart Glasses, use rubber bands and velcro to attach iPads to their forearms and have not one, but TWO Bluetooth earbuds. They will science the shit out of any problems we might face.

#7: Comcast is very subtle about their clever product placement ads. This includes Xfinity, NBC, Universal studios and myriad other holdings they own. As a corollary to this, when Comcast essentially owns the rights to every movie or TV show produced over the past decade, there is no shame (or legal problems) with plagiarizing (...that word just LOOKS wrong, doesn't it?) your own intellectual property.

#8: Ignore #1. The very best weapon one can use in the event of a sharknado is actually a mechanoid suit of powered battle armor, armed with not one, but TWO chainsaws affixed to where one's hands should be. Opposable digits are unnecessary in the event of a sharknado. But such suits are hard to find in an emergency...

#9: Fireworks are an effective method of nullifying a sharknado. Simply stuff the pyrotechnics in the barrel of a cannon (such as the kind frequently found on pirate ships), toss in a match, take aim and BOOOM! No more sharknado.

#10: Carrot Top is now an Uber driver in Vegas. Always wondered what happened to him...

Now I have another year of waiting to get my next fix. Oh, well. At least I recorded it on the DVR.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"Stranger Things" - A Brief Review



I was eagerly awaiting the launch of Season 1 of "Stranger Things", a Netflix original television program on Friday, July 14th.

Based on trailers and what I'd read of the show, it sounded like it was directly in my wheelhouse. Consisting of just 8 episodes, the show chronicles the life of several citizens of Hawkins, Indiana and how they cope with "strange goings-on" in their town.

Set in 1983, the show captured the look and feel of the time very well. Watching the young protagonists hanging out in a basement, riding their bikes in search of clues and the general sense of adventure reminded me a lot of my own youth during that time.

The Good:
- Interesting story
- Well-cast
- Nice serial feel to entire Season
- Several AMAZING surprises
- the soundtrack was pure 80's John Carpenter

The Not As Good:
- Exceptionally tropey in all ways
- Winona Ryder's "enthusiasm" for her role
- A blissful ignorance of tensions in a small Midwest town
- Scenes, dialogue and plot directly procured from approximately a dozen works by Spielberg and Stephen King. Unapologetically so at times.

While I enjoyed the show (yep - binge watched over 3 days) the finale was a bit of a head scratcher. It seemed to me that the writers and directors were expecting one or two more episodes in the season and were caught by surprise at the end.

"Well, we have a lot of plot arcs to complete, characters to punish and 'hanging chads' to punch. Let's see how many we do in 60 minutes!" Or so I imagined the conversation.

Still, "Stranger Things" is the worth the time. As I described to a couple of friends:

"The perfect mashup of 'The Goonies' meets 'ET' as written by Stephen King, shooting for a PG-13 rating. And a dash of Lovecraft for seasoning."

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Heavy Price of Insider Knowledge or How a Tour of the Jerky Factory Ruined Me



There are several authors whose work I've read faithfully for years. Think of it as "comfort reading", if you will. Series which have gone on for decades or more. Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy and numerous others fall into that category. On some level, I was well-aware that the books were not "literary tour de force" material, but I enjoyed the stories and reading about familiar characters was like visiting with old friends you've not seen a while.

In short, I was blissfully ignorant.

But since making a serious run at learning the craft of writing, my tastes have changed. There are some authors among my favorites who I cannot really read any longer. The writing style hasn't changed, but I'm no longer able to dedicate hours of my life to completing a book which is only mediocre, no matter how much I love it.

For example, yesterday I finished a book in a very long-running series. Fact is, it has long been among my favorites. But after just a few chapters, the inner editor in my brain started analyzing what I was reading, noting all the "choices" made by the author. Choices I'd have not even noticed a few years ago, were highlighted in my brain. I eventually had to "turn off" that part of my head and just enjoy the ride. Which I did.

While attending Taos Toolbox last year (a bucket list item for ANY speculative fiction writer) I had a conversation with the great author and mentor, Walter Jon Williams. I asked him about this situation and he offered me a rueful smile. 

"It sucks, doesn't it?" he said.

Its a lot like knowing all the secrets of a magician's act - you can enjoy the showmanship, but the illusions don't have the same magic they used to.

Almost a decade ago, I was working with a customer interested in the software I was peddling at the time. They made beef jerky. Part of our standard process was an on-site visit and behind-the-scenes tour of their facility to better learn how our software could help them in different areas.

This included up-close and personal visits to the RENDERING ROOM. With great pride, they showed us, from start to finish, how a dead cow ends up as a thousand strips of teriyaki or BBQ flavored jerky, vacuum-sealed and safe to eat for the next 500 years.

Since that day, I've not been able to look at beef jerky, let alone take a bite. 

In a similar fashion, I can no longer just pick up a book, dive in and enjoy the story. My right brain still craves the story, the characters and the overall COOLNESS of the tale. But my left brain will immediately start noticing all the elements of theme, motif, grammar, syntactical construction, three or five act construction, dialogue/action tags, rising tension/stakes and the myriad other components that go into a good novel.

Now, I have to muzzle the snarky bastard just to enjoy a good yarn. I have to keep quiet during movies with my wife so as to avoid pointing out foreshadowing, act breaks and other petty details. I'm unable to sit down, turn on the TV and turn off the brain. 

It sucks, doesn't it?





Wednesday, June 29, 2016

More on Rejection

I have the pleasure of working for a very progressive software company which places a high degree of value on hard work and having fun. A very open organization, my employer hosts a HUGE event every September for our 12,000 customers. Each year they solicit employees for ideas and abstracts to present during the event. For the past 4 years, I've been accepted and had a great time presenting my content in front of hundreds of customers.

Until this year.


I got rejected. By work. To present on a software package I helped create! Following Kubler-Ross to a tee, my reaction was as follows:

DENIAL: "What? I think they sent this email to me by mistake."
ANGER: "Fools! They'll rue the day they did not choose me to present my material!"
BARGAINING: "Ok, what if I make it shorter and include a section where I'm juggling flaming chainsaws? On a unicycle?"
DEPRESSION: <surly silence>
ACCEPTANCE: "I think they're doing the event in Vegas next year! I should probably start preparing now."

When I think how many rejection slips I've received from various publishers and editors over the past 5 years, I have to grin. This? This is nothing.

"You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” – Ray Bradbury

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” – Sylvia Plath

“Rejections slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.” – Isaac Asimov

“Every rejection is incremental payment on your dues that in some way will be translated back into your work.” – James Lee Burke

AND MY PERSONAL FAVORITE:

“Rejection has value. It teaches us when our work or our skillset is not good enough and must be made better. This is a powerful revelation, like the burning UFO wheel seen by the prophet Ezekiel, or like the McRib sandwich shaped like the Virgin Mary seen by the prophet Steve Jenkins. Rejection refines us. Those who fall prey to its enervating soul-sucking tentacles are doomed. Those who persist past it are survivors. Best ask yourself the question: what kind of writer are you? The kind who survives? Or the kind who gets asphyxiated by the tentacles of woe?” – Chuck Wendig

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Off Balance





















So tired.

Not from work, not from writing nor the act of living as opposed to existing. My fatigue stems from the never-ending barrage of intolerance, senseless violence, stupidity and a surge of "groupthink" not seen since the days of the Weimar Republic.

This is juxtaposed by the wonderful experience of sharing my father's 80th birthday over the weekend with family and friends not seen in decades. A celebration of a full-life and respect.

Too much of the good and too much of the bad leaving me swaying in the wind.

I won't chime in on my opinions on the horrific shootings in Orlando - there is ample text found on the Interwebs already. It does, however, remind me of a quote from Walter Jon Williams;

"I'm not afraid of werewolves or vampires or haunted hotels, I'm afraid of what real human beings to do other real human beings."

The shootings at Pulse leave me cold yet furious. But what really scares the shit out of me is the "business as usual" attitude displayed by so many in positions to actually change things. The NRA, the politicians on the take from them, the rigid and narrow minded views of Muslims by so many and just the rampant idiocy one sees on the news every night.

In the past I've voted both Republican and Democrat. I consider myself a "Rationalist" as best I can be. As such, I take on the responsibility to actually think for myself, to research and seek facts, not paid endorsements by expert pundits. I seldom like what I find under such rocks, but that is the trade-off of free thought.

Knowledge comes with a price if you're doing it right.

When I think about voting in November (and I WILL vote in November) I'm reminded of the "Would You Rather?" game we used to play in middle school as a kid.

"Would you rather go down a slide of razor blades and land in a pool of alcohol or have a 16 pound bowling ball drop on your nut sack?"

And so on. This coming election could be a lot like that...

Too many Americans are frustrated and angry at our government and are lashing out like villagers armed with pitchforks and torches, seeking a non-existent monster. We should be instead directing that energy towards other pursuits; pursuits which just "might" have a positive outcome despite the odds.

Just please don't ask me what those things are. I'm at a loss.



Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Leveling Up and Punching Water

To be honest, this has been a tough month as far as submissions and rejections go. Hot on the heels of attending an invigorating writing workshop in San Antonio, I promised myself to follow Uncle Jim's (Jim MacDonald - teacher extraordinaire from Viable Paradise) advice on writing and submitting one's work.

"Submit, submit and submit - until the Devil himself won't take it."

That particular strategy has met with less than successful results.



 


















     
In the spirit of finding a silver lining, I have realized one important aspect about the rejection emails. They are NOT the dreaded "form R" in all the cases. Don't get me wrong - I'm not receiving detailed instructions on how to fix a particular work nor am I getting guidance on where to send the next work I create.

But what it means is that Very Busy People are taking the time to not only read my work, but take that extra 60 seconds to craft a more personal response. Which I'll take any day.

It means I'm "leveling up" - my skills are improving, I've adopted positive writing techniques at the unconscious layer and am incorporating lessons learned into my new work. It is still a struggle, no bones about it.

To borrow from eastern martial arts, I've mastered the basics of the form and must now redouble my efforts to transcend to the next tier. I can punch water with perfect form, but must learn to do so without making a ripple.


 









And that might take a while longer...