National Novel Writing Month 2013

Sunday, April 20, 2014

My Joy is Full.

Ever since the LDS General Conference a few weeks back, I've seen a trending hashtag on Twitter and Facebook (yes, hashtags are valid there now, have been for a while). The tag is #BecauseOfHim, and people use it when sharing things for which they are grateful, things made possible by the life, the sacrifice, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I consider myself a devout Christian, though social media isn't where I usually display my religious activity. It's for the same reason I don't wear clothing or jewelry with a bunch of Jesus stuff decked all over it--power to those who do, I'd just personally feel flamboyant and obnoxious doing so, based on my personality. And for a major portion of my life, I've struggled with being obnoxious.

Were we to explore just how or why, we'd be here all day and you'd be bored to tears, so I won't get into that. Bottom line is, whether through nurture or nature, that's who I ended up being. When my post-teenage years rolled around and I got out into the world on my own, I didn't realize just how much I tended to annoy people.

In the fall of 2003 I started to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As part of my service, I was assigned a companion who was to be by my side basically twenty-four-seven. Your companion changes every couple of months, because the Lord needed us in different places at different times, and we had different things to learn from each other in the meantime.

Sometimes you like your companion, sometimes you don't. I had a few that I got along with, a few that I didn't, and one who taught me a boatload about how to be a better man. We've remained close friends to this day, and I frequently find myself thanking God for his friendship and the impact it's had on me.

His name is Matt Jones, from Oklahoma. He has an innate skill for making other people feel valued and important. He has a ton of interesting talents, chief among them being his propensity for humor. For being such a small dude, he's got a crazy deep voice, which I think is what makes people laugh at just about anything he says. (That and his propensity for sarcasm.)

What I appreciated most, I think, is his balance between his devotion to God and his total unwillingness to tolerate BS. He knows what he wants, he knows what's important, and anything that opposes that, he doesn't let it waste his time. In a sense I didn't realize that one could truly live that way until I knew him.

Furthermore he was able to let me see my own flaws--and how to fix them--without chiding me, belittling me, or putting himself above me. He's the kind of friend I really needed, then and for years to come.

My talent for annoyance didn't disappear overnight; obviously it's still there, yet it's only a shadow of its former self. It took years for me to truly see what he's taught me. They aren't the things anyone could learn by sitting down and studying them. You couldn't read a checklist of your faults and become the kind of person you'd be after a few months of Matt. It's why his friendship is such a blessing.

I joke with people about how putting up with him is a Herculean task, primarily because Matt's also very skilled at teasing you in a way that everyone can laugh at. Nobody knows this better than the woman who just married him last night, bless her heart. She's very special indeed, not for her ability to tolerate that one shard of him, but for her ability to win him over.

I got to attend their sealing and wedding reception yesterday in Oakland/San Francisco. I've gone to weddings before, of course, yet this one struck a chord that I hadn't felt since my little brother got hitched in December of 2010. It takes a very special event to drum up that sense of pure joy and love for another person, for being happy that they are happy. I feel like by nature I am a selfish person, and I often wish I was better at being happy for others, so when that feeling comes along I really treasure it.

At the night's end, as I was walking back to where I'd parked my rental, I took a few brief moments to breathe in the San Francisco ambiance and let my mind wander down Memory Lane. It surprised me how similar Frisco is to Barcelona, or Valencia, or other major coastal Spanish cities where I'd lived and worked as a missionary. There I was, ten years later, striding quickly down a cobbled sidewalk in a suit, my heart and spirit full of inimitable joy, thanks in large part to Matt Jones.

Whatever my skills with words, I come up short to describe that feeling in its totality. The last ten years of my friendship with Matt have been a roller coaster whirlwind, as severe life events have bounced off both of us, tried us, tested us, changed us, and hopefully made us just a little better than we were back then. I can't put a price on those memories, those feelings, those raw emotions that have only strengthened the connection I feel to God. Aside from my marriage and fatherhood, the most formative and meaningful successes of my adult life have had Matt's fingerprints on them.

And that's something that would not be, if he and I had not chosen to serve missions.

I know what Christ has personally done for me, what He continues to do for me daily, and what's possible because of Him. If I were to catalog them all, it'd be even longer than this post, which I thank you for reading. Most of what Christ has done for me, He's done through other people.

So this Easter, as I focus on the blessings of the Atonement and the Resurrection of our Savior, I think about what that's done for me and my family. Without Him, we'd never have a shot at getting home to our heavenly parents. Without Him, we wouldn't have His Church on the Earth, I wouldn't have gone on a mission, and I wouldn't have become so many of the good things that Matt has helped me to be.

God most often blesses us and answers our prayers through other people. Think of that when you have a chance to reach out to someone and help them feel what you feel. That pure happiness is there for all of us if we look in the right place.

Thus, I leave you with this simple truth: #BecauseOfHim, my joy is full.

And I'll work to keep it that way.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Push-Up Bender II: The Pushening. It's Halftime!

As it turns out, publishing a book is complex work, and many things can go wrong, so I've devoted most of my blogging time toward that. As such I have not posted weekly updates for the Push-Up Bender, and although I've tracked the different push-ups done in the different categories, I won't be posting the numbers here in all their statistical glory.

Those of us who are participating in the bender will get a look at the breakdown of their numbers by the end. For now, our Benders have been pushing diligently, and they've got the numbers to prove it. Here's the count for weeks 1-3!

Driftwood: 610
Rotjob: 457
Friendly Ghost: 399
Skateboard Slim: 518

Driftwood: 700 (1,310)
Rotjob: 760 (1,217)
Friendly Ghost: 691 (1,090)
Skateboard Slim: 746 (1,264)

Driftwood: 606 (1,916)
Rotjob: 655 (1,872)
Friendly Ghost: 776 (1,866)
Skateboard Slim: 290 (1,554)*

*Skateboard Slim took a few days off for healing, and then posted a monster day today, but that'll go on his Week 4 total. But if it were added to Week 3, he'd be a hair on a gnat's butt from overtaking Friendly Ghost.

Week 3 was a bit of a plateau week. We all underperformed compared to week 2, except for Friendly Ghost, who is literally half man, half bear, and half bison. He posted a number that is 120 push-ups higher than the #2 Bender and he missed two days last week. 

Which brings up a relevant point: a lot of us have suffered from strain in these last few days, not just via muscle soreness, but from joint pain. It's just like running: we're picking up too many reps, too quickly. Make sure to pace yourself, try to keep your sets even, breathe, and STRETCH when you're done. Take a little bit of ibuprofen if you need it, and rub in some IcyHot at the end of the day.

We're halfway there, gentlemen. Let's see some magic this week. Let's see who's going to post the largest increase over this last week! (Skateboard has the biggest advantage, in that his number was the smallest.)

I'll post the awards after week 6. Great work, team.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Works in Progress

I've been illustrating REBEL HEART for two months now, and as I've put together these different pieces, I've taken from progression shots to show how they've come to be. As I sorted through them tonight, I thought I'd share them here. 

On the above drawing, they are both mostly done, but I wasn't thrilled with the end result and went back to shade it better. It's hard because the light source is in the center (the grenade blast) and I hadn't done many pieces with that setup before.

This is the first set of rough sketches that Carter sent me, just to give me some options for the final product. I would end up telling him to use #2 as a starting point, but there were cues from the others that made it in too.

After a few more back-and-forths, this was the "greenlight" rough--the last rough he'd send me before going whole-hog on the final sketch.

And THIS is what came of it.

Then there's this, with all the text in place.

As of right now, I have 9 sheets left to do. From there I will get them scanned, fix them digitally, place them in the manuscript, pick a font and set the layout, write the back copy cover, get the ISBN, and launch this baby into orbit. Still aiming for mid-April, but there's no set date yet (not until I finish the drawings, as those are the least predictable.)

To all of you who've given your support and encouragement and enthusiasm on this, I thank you profoundly. I just hope I can figure out how to make this thing a success :-)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Push-Up Bender II: The Pushening.

Okay, gentlemen. (And ladies. We're totally cool with ladies on the Grahampage.)

This is it.

The moment some of you have been waiting for, and others have been sorta ignoring all week.

Tomorrow, PUB2 is underway.

I want you to remember some important things:

1) It doesn't matter how many reps you can do in a set; it matters how many sets you can do in a day.

2) It lasts six weeks because it's about gradual upward progression. If you can only do five push-ups at a time, do five push-ups at a time. By week two, you'll be up to seven, eight, maybe ten. By week six, you'll be pushing north of twenty-five per set.

3) It takes literally thirty seconds for a decent set of push-ups. Remember that next time you pull up your phone to send off a Tweet or update your Facebook status (neither of which will blast your pecs.)

4) Unlike sit-ups, push-ups can be done anywhere. Even outside on the ground--if it's funky out, use gloves, or napkins, or the fast-food bag in your car.

5) Don't make excuses, least of all to yourself. You can do this, and you'll be glad you did when it's over, and you'll be cooler than all your friends, friends who won't have bulbous chest muscles like you will. Also your wife will dig it.

6) Further directions will hit your Facebook inbox regularly.

You'll need to know the parameters of PUB2:

1) Every push-up counts! ...

...but some have stipulations depending on their difficulty. Follow this chart to track what you do in a day:

N: Normal push-ups. Back flat, hands about chest-width apart, all the way up, all the way down.

W: Wide push-ups. From normal position, start with your hands wider apart than your shoulders. (Easier than normal.)

T: Trikes/Diamonds. Your hands will be close enough to touch. Extend the thumbs to where the tips connect; they will form a diamond shape. (Harder than normal.)

E: Elevated. Your feet are on one chair, and each hand is on another chair. You dip low enough that your chest sinks past your hands. (Harder than normal. Also, awesome.)

I: Inclined. Feet on the floor, hands on chairs.

D: Declined. Feet on a chair, hands on floor.

H: Handstand push-ups. (Advanced. Recommend you do them against a wall.) One complete handstand push-up, wherein the head touches the floor, and then the arms extend all the way again, counts for as much as two push-ups.

B/O: Bench press Over. Whether it's barbells or dumbbells, every rep you log wherein you are pushing more than 50% of your body weight counts as two push-ups.

B/U: Bench press Under. If you're pressing a weight that is under 50% of your body weight, it counts as one regular push-up.

V: Variant. This could be any other kind of push-up that you wish to try, though I think you've got plenty of options thus far.

A note on isometric push-ups ("lower-and-hold"): if you want to do an iso push-up, there are two ways to count it. Holding a regular push-up position over an extended period of time means that every five seconds counts as one rep. If you lower yourself to where your chest is just off the ground and hold that position, every three seconds counts as one rep. It's likely that you won't do this kind at all, I just put it in here if you're curious.

I suspect most of you will want to do Normal or Wide push-ups. That's mostly what I'll be doing. The other options are there for the sake of branching out if you get bored.

2) There will be awards for:

     * Most push-ups in a single category (awarded weekly, plus an "overall" award at the end)

     * Most push-ups overall (awarded weekly, plus an "overall" award at the end)

     * Most improved from beginning to end

     * Most consistent

     * Most ambitious

     * And anything else along the way that is worthy of the recognition.

3) The awards will consist of:

     * Respectable bragging rights

     * Augmented upper body strength

     * Fear from all men, and great desire by the ladies

     * Custom decals for your car, firearm, NFL helmet, et cetera, commemorating your accomplishment

     * A commissioned drawing by yours truly

     * (If you so desire), I will use your face on a character in my next book, immortalizing you in popular fiction.

That's the skinny so far. Tomorrow, pace yourselves; do a set or two in the morning, one or two more at lunch, a few more in the evening. No biggie. Track your progress and send me a message so I can write it all down; I'll put it in a spreadsheet and post the results each weekend (each competitor will be assigned a nickname to protect their identity.)

If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or get in touch with me however you like.

Let it begin!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Let's you and me go on a push-up bender and get totally jacked.

Three years ago I went on a push-up bender with my friend Matt. It's about as complex as it sounds: you do push-ups, all the time, with the goal of doing more than the other guy on a daily basis.

It was a little insane. I'd throw down a couple of sets in the morning, text him my number, and get a reply maybe an hour later that he was ahead of me by ten reps. So I'd throw down in the afternoon, and end the day comfortably ahead of him. This went on for a few weeks until his evening sets started to challenge mine.

I had the advantage of working in an office, where I could stop every thirty minutes, put my feet up on the chair, and knock out a set in 30-45 seconds. If I was diligent, and if things weren't super busy, I could pound out several hundred push-ups before lunch.

I don't want to brag, so I'll pretend I'm not.

After two months of this (we're competitive), I worked my way up to a rate of 400 per day. Granted, the last four or five of every set weren't super clean, but I was still doing a metric butt-ton of push-ups. However, 2,000 of them in 5 days took its toll on my "good" shoulder, and I had to throw in the towel, because it felt like my joint was ripping in two.

Still practiced my sweet moves, though.

The impetus for all of this stemmed from our reading of Marcus Luttrell's LONE SURVIVOR, an account of the author's escape from a war zone after he and his comrades were found by local tribesmen. Luttrell, a Navy SEAL, wrote about his BUD/S training (which included the infamous Hell Week) in exquisite detail. One of the most common military exercises/punishments is push-ups. He estimated they were doing north of 200 per day, along with everything else that was demanded of them...and he did it, because he's Marcus Freaking Luttrell. 

Our chances of becoming Navy SEALs are virtually nonexistent at this point in our lives, but we can still challenge ourselves and build up our bodies. After a month of so many push-ups, my button-down shirts no longer fit without the buttons pulling tight across my launch pads.

At first I was like...

But then I was like...

And now I'm all...

Maybe push-ups aren't your thing. Well, you know what? They can be. They only aren't because you're not doing them. You're not doing them because you can't? You can't because you don't. We all have to start somewhere. When I was 15, I couldn't even do ten in a row. When I was 21, I was waking up before the sun to do 6 sets of 30, with my feet on the couch and my hands on chairs, so as to get a deeper dip.

You can do it. And you should do it. We should all do it together.

Here's the skinny: starting on Monday, March 17th, the luckiest day of the month, we will launch Push-Up Bender 2014. We will do as many push-ups as we can in a six-week period. We'll track our daily numbers, weekly averages, and overall count. I'll make a spreadsheet or something and post updates. You can even pick out an awesome Code Name for yourself if you don't want your push-up-bending identity revealed just yet.

Will there be a prize if you win? Sure, if a good amount of you want to go through with it. Maybe I'll throw in a copy of the finished REBEL HEART. We'll see. We'll have to set some ground rules for what qualifies as a push-up, but we've got time to figure that out.

What do you say? Do you want to get jacked and increase your physical intimidation factor by +5? You should. Do it for yourself, and do it for America.

Truth. Justice. Spandex.

It's gonna be epic.

Friday, March 7, 2014

How to Draw...or Do Anything, Really.

Okay. This is how I drew in high school:

Not too bad, considering. But not the kind of thing anyone would pay for. Then there's this:

I went on my first mecha kick sometime in 2000/2001, but this piece is scarcely original; I copied it out of an art book for Heavy Gear, a mecha video game that was popular back then. All I did was add some extra hardware and label the heck out of it all.

Sure, this one's decent. Too bad it came from a "How to Draw Muscle Cars" book.

Yeah, this was a step up from the Heavy Gear rip-off. I drew this based off a Witchblade/Tomb Raider comic that a friend of mine brought to school one day.

Hey-hey! Here's a nice piece of crap.

So basically I look back at what I drew in those days and I don't esteem it very highly, at least not in the context of whether I would buy it. I like to think I've improved over the years, which is what brought me to the point where I could make this:

That's from the upcoming novella REBEL HEART. Still aiming for a mid-April release, but whatever the date ends up being, I'll announce it when I'm sure it will launch. 

This is the last REBEL HEART sketch that I will post online. I have maybe a dozen more to do, but since I've posted them all on the Facebook page, I want to leave a few surprises for the final product. 

My friend T.J. mentioned recently that he wished he could illustrate one of his own books, I think he said it in the context of drawing out the characters to get a visual. Obviously not everyone draws, or even esteems themselves to have an inclination toward it, but don't let that deter you from trying.

Learning how to draw isn't merely a matter of innate talent, though it does come easier to some than others. I've done it my whole life and I'm only as good as the piece above. (When I was living in Spain, I met a man who'd taken up painting in his sixties, and after only one year he was producing the kind of stuff they'd hang in the White House.) It's all a matter of pinning down some basics, and elaborating from there.

In no particular order, here are a few steps you can take if you want to get good/better at drawing:

1) Get a "How to Draw" book. That Dodge Charger sketch up above might have come from a how-to manual, but I still drew it. It gave me a sense of perspective on machines, which I've definitely used in my art since then.

2) It's like the relationship between reading and writing. If you want to write better, you need to read more. If you want to draw better, you need to observe more. Pay attention to light values, angles, relative size and so on. Or read more graphic novels.

3) Start simple. I spent a lot of time freehanding Disney characters before I figured out how to make distinct-looking characters with simple lines and shapes. 

4) Do it in your downtime. Get a small sketchpad and draw small things--someone's face, or their profile, or a fire hydrant, your iPhone, whatever. I put together big, varied drawings by looking at pictures of lots of small things, placing them where they're needed, and then shading them appropriately so that they look like they belong. It's a trick I'd have figured out a lot sooner if I'd done it more often (but I spent all that time writing. :) 

5) Stop telling yourself you can't do it. Because there are plenty of damn commies out in the world that will tell you you can't do something, you don't need to put your own name on the list. I could be an astronaut if I wanted, I'm just not willing to do what it takes to get there. Fortunately drawing isn't so exclusive. 

As with anything in life, if you break it down to its most necessary component parts, learn those, then elaborate, with practice you'll get it down. It helps if you don't hold yourself to someone else's standard; set your own. I'll never draw like James A. Owen, and that's fine. I draw like Graham Bradley. After enough people see my work, they'll always be able to tell mine apart. It's like penmanship.

So T.J. (and the rest of the world), that's how you learn to draw.

Or do anything else, really.

Also, get back to work. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

It's Never Been More Real Than It Is Now

Every uber-successful writer--hell, every writer who's made it past the gatekeepers into mainstream success--has a Spam-and-Ramen story to tell. You know what I mean; the lean days, the long nights, the suffering they endured for years before they got to where they are now. Here are a few that swim around in my head:

Howard Tayler slaved at his day job and winged his way through a webcomic at night, before making the bold move to quit the day job and work the comic full-time. He hasn't missed a day of comics in almost fourteen years, he publishes books twice a year, and he's merchandising like a boss. By any measure he's a success, and he's still going strong.

Brandon Sanderson worked nights at a hotel, clack-clacking away on a crappy old laptop whilst he lived in his friend's basement, before TOR offered him something like $20,000 for his first published novel. Since then he's finished one of the largest fantasy series of all time, and landed seven-figure advances for his own work. He could publish a picture book full of selfies wherein he's flipping you the bird, call it IF YOU'RE READING THIS, YOU SUCK, and it would still make a bajillion dollars. 

Dan Wells wrote corporate crap for a shampoo company, then stayed up writing his own stuff after his family had gone to bed each night. Now he's such a huge international best-seller that he moved to Germany for a few years just to satisfy his overseas fans.

James A. Owen got kicked in the teeth (and just about everywhere else) before finally buckling down and self-publishing the first installment in his own graphic novel series. Once that issue hit the shelves, he got into a car accident and pretty much lost the use of his drawing hand. Since then he's come back stronger than ever, and is the most successful hybrid authors (still self-publishes, as well as with two large publication houses) of which I know. His own story, a mix of autobiography and inspirational lecture, is one of the best books you'll ever read. 

Then there are the Really Big Fish. People like J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, and Richard Castle (not a real person), whose rags-to-riches tales have been all but mythologized among us aspiring types. What I glean from these examples is that in general, you have to A), never give up, and B) shovel a LOT of s*** before you dig down and find what's of value to you and your legion of future readers.

Five years ago I thought I was there. I hella wasn't, though. I WANTED the level of success that I saw in my favorite authors, like James Dashner or Aprilynne Pike or Larry Correia. That didn't set me apart from the crowd, not by a long shot. Every wannabe like me wants to be at that stage. Hardly any of the wannabes like me have earned it, and I definitely hadn't. 

In a sense, I hadn't suffered enough for it.

Fast forward to the present. I'm sitting at my kitchen table. My laptop is propped up on my drawing table, and I'm taking a break between illustrations for my forthcoming self-published novella, REBEL HEART. In five years I've written I-don't-know-how-many books, been rejected by countless agents and editors, been represented by a fantastic agent, parted with said agent, had a book on the very freaking brink of being accepted by a publishing house, only to then see that publishing house go out of business (this happened twice. TWICE) and I finally said to hell with it all, I'm doing it my way.

If part of the qualification for earning success involves getting horsekicked in the face by a Clydesdale named "Life," well, I'm at least ahead of my twenty-four year-old self.

None of that, however, negates the need for me to be better than I was in 2009. Au contraire, I have an even greater impetus to be the best I possibly can. And like those who have gone before me, I have to have paid the price.

For the second night in a row, our son won't go to sleep. He's teething and fighting a cough at the same time. It's exhausting my wife, so we're juggling his needs while we try to keep the house from falling apart. My job is insane, the schedule is unpredictable, and we both have callings at church. All the while I'm trying to illustrate this short little book, bankroll its publication, and hope that I've done everything right so as to give it the best chance of success. I know that my life is not as hard as it's ever going to get, but it is as hard as it's ever gotten. And while my desire for success hasn't dwindled, my deep-seated need for it is stronger than ever.

So when I step back and look at where I am now, I can't help but hope that the silver lining is finally about to burst. I know that publishing one single digital novella (no matter how brilliantly illustrated) isn't going to rocket me into yachts and mansions, I just need to it be a really solid first step. Get me some momentum. Get me rolling downhill for a change, just a little. Show me that it's paying off, that I'm as good as I think I am, and that I can keep going forward from here.

Because right now, this is as real as it gets. That's about as well as I can define it. 

That is all. Get back to work.